“Life isn’t divided into genres. It’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”—Alan Moore
How do I even begin to explain Alan Moore? Simply, he’s the greatest comics writer of all time. I’ve ranked his top 10 works below.
The pocket biography of Moore reads like this: Alan Moore is an English writer born in 1953 in the Midlands town of Northampton, where he still lives. Growing up after World War II, the working-class Moore is profoundly influenced by comics and the counterculture. In the ‘80s, he writes a groundbreaking series of comics that change the field forever. You’ve heard of most of them. Up until the ‘90s, the majority of his work was published through DC Comics. After DC Comics pursues what many consider to be an underhanded interpretation of contract laws on his most famous work, Watchmen, Moore breaks up with DC. He spends the next 25 years writing for independent houses. Moore declares himself a magician at age 40. In the ‘90s, the comics-to-film boom commences. Large corporations begin offering him ungodly heaps of filthy lucre. Moore refuses on principle, making him even more prominent. Year by year, Moore releases more work: indie films, performance pieces, one-off comics, a short novel, a leviathan novel, volumes of interviews.
Apart from his direct impact on comics and movies, Moore exerts a hidden gravity on our culture, his true reach hard to describe. The best way of thinking about the Magus of Comics might be to shove him in the same category as economists and philosophers. For example, most of Jimmy Fallon’s audience doesn’t know Adam Smith or Niccolo Machiavelli; these people were mildly famous in their lifetimes, and slightly more famous now. But these two figures exert a huge influence on the world. They named theories and set boundaries and made arguments, and even if you haven’t read them, the people who set the agenda for our society have.
That’s how Moore works. Practically everyone who has a say in our culture has read the man (or they have employees who have).
Confession time: I adore Moore. I spoke to him once over the phone for an interview. And so writing about him in a detached, scientific way is a rough proposition. There’s no chemically pure angle for me to take here—the man is a bedrock for me. I believe that he is the true father of comics-as-literature, the first sequential-art writer of the blood royal.
But even rabid apostles can learn to read a text critically. And honestly, whether you know it or not, you’re a fan of the Magician of Northampton. Moore is akin to David Lynch or Buddy Holly: we are all his students.
10. A Small Killing
Artist: Oscar Zarate
Publisher: Avatar Press
Here’s the landmark which stands nearest to Moore. Allow me to explain: I don’t think A Small Killing is the work that means the most to Moore emotionally, or that it shows some never-revealed Rosebud, or that it amounts to autobiography by code. What I mean is that A Small Killing is the work I see as somehow closest to the heart of the creator, the way the Book of Job is central to any exegesis of the Tanakh. A Small Killing is a story that unconsciously comments on Moore’s anxiety. (This is all rabid hearsay, of course, and should not be aired in a legitimate court of law.)
Near as I can tell, Moore does not fear fire, flood, famine or pox. But he’s wary of being false to himself. I read A Small Killing as a stylized alternative nightmare world where Moore became an advertising executive. If Halo Jones is Young Moore who worked in a gas company, the protagonist of A Small Killing is the Moore who sold his birthright for a mass of corporate pottage, and became a gutless executive in the Time Warner conglomerate.
During this story, the lead character Timothy Hole leaves his sleek, lifeless city existence to travel to his Midlands childhood home. As Hole symbolically moves closer to his origin, he effectively moves backwards in time. All the while, Tim is haunted by a strange boy who looks exactly like his forgotten younger self. The child lobs armor-piercing questions at Tim: “Do you really like beer?” Of course he doesn’t. There’s a lot that Tim doesn’t like.
A Small Killing is the story of forgotten and lost alternative selves…the people we might have been, and could still be, if we want it badly enough. This story is a book to be read by quiet summer moonlight; it’s about selling your young self. If you’re a haunted reader, this is the stuff evening readings were made for.
But aren’t all of these works haunted stories?
It’s an apt phrase, “haunted.” To deal in Moore is to speak of occult wonders, of lingering spirits that do not depart easily.
These are only 10 (or is it 11?) stories from the magic mountain of modern comics. Would that there were 10 times as many works from this particular wizard. It’s said that Alan Moore has decided to step away from comics. Perhaps he’ll stay away this time. He may truly retire, and go on write movies, songs, and other novels. But selfishly, I hope against hope that his leave-taking won’t last. I don’t think he can stay away, and never look back. Moore is haunted by comics, and we are haunted by him.
9. Captain Britain
Artist: Alan Davis
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Captain Britain is Alan Moore’s Pickwick Papers. The inchoate mass of ambition trying to become the creator Moore. Like watching a charismatic box of Duplos teaching itself to form St. Peter’s Cathedral. Moore did a few pieces for Marvel Comics, and this is the maypole of the lot. In this sprawling, trans-dimensional saga, we see the writer’s almost appalling fertility. Captain Britain fights Mad Jim Jaspers, a reality-warping politician. He assembles a team of costumed adventurers to fight off a truly ghastly robot, The Fury. Stay for a while. You won’t sleep again.
Moore has a dozen ideas every page, and five of them are solid-gold immortal. There are fights, monsters, time travel, alternative realities, love affairs, turns of phrase, fictional references, allusions to British comedians. The superhero at the heart of the game is barely the point. Moore is getting away with whatever catches his fancy. Where other strip could have given us Captain Britain’s Orwell-universe parallel, Captain Airstrip One? Moore’s Captain Britain run is also the story of Moore’s two halves at war. On one side, the practical-minded professional who studied Brian Eno. That guy’s trying to build a narrative and craft a calculated piece of sublime entertainment. On the other side, the magician: Moore the raw creative. The professional superego barely keeps ahead of his creative id; here is the rational storyteller trying to outrun his profligate and prodigiously gifted creative subconscious who gets bored at the drop of a hat.
In time, Moore would learn to fuse the two, but in Captain Britain, he’s in a beautiful conflict, and it’s a joy to watch. For a tale about parallel worlds, Moore manages to never say the same thing twice.
8. Tie: D.R. & Quinch./ The Bojeffries Saga
Artist: Alan Davis/ Steve Parkhouse
.Publisher: 2000 AD/ Top Shelf
“My name’s Ernie Quinch, College Student. I like guns and starting fights. My psychiatrist says I’m a psychotic deviant.” So speaks one of leads of Moore’s hooligan saga, D.R. & Quinch. It’s a line that works for either of these titles.
D.R.&Q is the story of alien juvenile delinquents: two psychologically disturbed space youth have raw, Hunter-Thompsonian fun. Moore referred to the pair as “Dennis the Menace with a thermonuclear capacity.” The Bojeffries Saga is the tale of a working-class family of horror creatures who live in Northampton: one’s a werewolf, one’s a vampire, one’s a blob creature. The Saga is Moore doing his version of the Munsters. If you’ve read any Moore, you know by now how intense and otherworldly Moore “doing” any premise is. To live a Midlands British life is to be one horror among many, Moore is saying.
I pair these two off because they’re a natural fit: they’re the two sides of the strange cosmic comical vision.
There’s a contingent of Moore fans who prefer to view him as a purveyor of dour, gothy culture. But that’s a limited perspective. For starters, Moore made his bread in a daily comic about a magic cat. That was his go-to; that’s how he began the business.
Honestly, once you start reading all of Moore, it’s amazing how often the goofy and absurd shows up in his work. Outside of the serious books, Moore is surprisingly funny. Put simply, D.R. & Quinch is his guilty pleasure, and The Bojeffries Saga is his account of childhood.
That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, by the way. I’ll let the man speak for himself: “So in a sense, I suppose all stories are autobiographical to some degree or another, but with the Bojeffries this was taking observations from my deeply-buried memories of a working-class upbringing. It was probably taking memories of a working class world that wasn’t there any more by the time I started writing the story, or at the very least was on the brink of vanishing.”
Artists: Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Chuck Austen, Rick Veitch, John Totleben, John Ridgeway
Publisher: Marvel Comics
As Chesterton said of Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, Marvelman (now titled Miracleman) is the only one of Moore’s works where it is necessary to know the date.
Marvelman is Alan Moore’s Book of Changes. Moore is a different creator at the beginning than he is at the end. When he starts the narrative, he has an idea, a sort of skeleton to hang a story on: what if the superman was real? What would happen? Marvelman is the story of Alan Moore saying just what. There are missteps and half-executed notions. But even his errors are gigantic wonders. When the story opens, Moore is merely the most gifted creator of his generation of British comics writers. He is trying, like Michael Moran, to make sense of a confusing situation. Any number of good scriptwriters could have handed the first issue in.
By the end of Marvelman, when the premise has been worked out, the writer is the modern Moore we all know: polished, sure, knowing, and rhapsodical (with restraint). Oh, he overwrites, he pours out prose by the purple yard. But Moore’s most salient (and underappreciated) feature is there: his humanity. In Moore, even when he is on board with a premise, there are always dissenting voices. That’s the hallmark of a great creator.
We are still in danger from this book, frankly. Before Superman the comic book character, the Victorians were worried about the superman, Nietzsche’s superman. George Bernard Shaw’s entire artistic canon came out of that obsession. The superman has several meanings, and Moore’s Marvelman meets them all. Is he a locus of power who makes a mockery of our morality? He is. Is he a supreme physical being that diminishes the human? Certainly. Is he a self-creating artist not bound by herd morality? Yes. Does he lose a part of his soul in the change? Without a doubt.
I need to repeat this, because it’s an important point, and scant few seem to notice: Moore is not the mocker of superheroes.
All Moore ever did was take comics seriously. Their premises, their possibilities, their audiences. It’s strange to say this about a man who got kicked out high school for dealing LSD, but nobody has ever been a more faithful student than Alan Moore. Imagine a radical doctor who made their patients immortal. That’s Moore.
The story of Michael Moran, who remembers that he is a superman, begins as a whimsical take-off on Captain Marvel, and ends as the story of a living god. Along the way, Moore reckons with issues of morality, humanity and the fragility of our world. After Marvelman, everything was possible.
6. Top 10
Artists: Gene Ha & Zander Cannon
Publisher: DC Comics
Imagine a cop show set in a city where every single woman, man and child has superpowers. That’s the world of Top 10. It’s one of several titles Moore created for the America’s Best Comics line, Moore’s return to superhero comics. He outdid himself. In the story of one police department, Moore shows the skills he’d perfected after 20 years of comics writing. Like most gifted artists, Moore went looking for inspiration, and found it everywhere, like fire in hell. The throwaway characters are better than the protagonists in other books.
Top 10 is a rambunctious demonstration of Moore’s Silver Age fanboyism. Look, I’ve been reading the words of Alan Moore for two decades now. Of course the man has his grim moments. But when Moore has negative emotions, they tend to rest on an ambient sense of disappointment. Moore is not a cyberpunk writer; the cyberpunks were cynical users of the side-eye and the tech-spec. Moore, as always, is a true believer with gifts that lean toward the prophetic. He is genuinely surprised at the failure of sci-fi in our world—surprised as only the faithful can be. When he creates a sci-fi city, he builds grandly, and without snark.
Moore’s ambitions put him at direct odds with reports of bitterness, which Moore is often (and unfairly) accused of. People who label Moore as a curmudgeon aren’t paying attention. Top 10 disproves them.
Bitter men don’t launch local newspapers (Dodgem Logic) in mid-career. Bitter men don’t write Supreme: The Story of the Year. Bitter men don’t get involved in comics, period, or stick around their hometowns, or care as much as Moore does. And a bitter man would not, could not have written Top 10.
Sci-fi is a smasher of unspoken clichés; it raises questions that complicate everything. And Top 10 is Moore’s treatise on sci-fi and superheroes. His story of civil servants from a freewheeling kitchen-sink Earth is proof of the depth of his vision. Here’s a giant horseman who fuses with a middle-aged office worker. Here’s a dog in a robot suit. Here’s a serious Christian woman who flies like a hawk, and works across from a devout peacock-feather-wearing Satanist. Here’s a toymaker who looks for love and employment, and forms an unlikely bond with a blue brooding fantasy hero. Top 10 is the biggest flattery of sci-fi that Moore ever wrote, disguised as a serial scientific melodrama. Even when Moore is writing a cop show, he doesn’t slack.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.