I’ve pretty much accepted at this point that the four favorite mainstream comics writers of my youth have all pretty much passed their peak. Neil Gaiman hardly writes comics of course, which is a shame; his super-hero/fantasy crosses were innovative and interesting, but his novels look pretty much like just straight fantasy, without the same spark (I haven’t read them, admittedly, so perhaps I’m being misled, but they sure don’t appeal on the surface.) Frank Miller’s hard-boiled approach is now such a cliche that when he does it he seems to be imitating his imitators. Grant Morrison is still entertaining, but I’ve given up waiting for him to attempt anything as ambitious or graceful as Animal Man and Doom Patrol (or as his first couple of fantasy/erotic short prose stories, for that matter.)
And then there’s Alan Moore. Over the last week I read Top Ten: 49ers and tried to read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier. The first is inventive and entertaining, though nowhere near as good as the Top Ten series, much less Watchmen or Swamp Thing or Halo Jones or Miracleman or any of Moore’s classic work. The Black Dossier isn’t so much a train wreck as a train that doesn’t ever start; simply put, it’s boring, in the way that the Silmarillion is boring, but without the excuse of never being intended for publication. Basically, Moore is trying to create a single continuity for every book he’s ever read to exist in the same world. It’s an incredibly sophisticated puzzle, and an impressive intellectual achievement on the level of solving an immensely difficult crossword — but watching someone solve a crossword is, unfortunately, neither especially entertaining nor especially profound. I couldn’t get through it; even the Wodehouse/Lovecraft crossover pastiche was a lot less fun than it should have been (for all his skill as a mimic, it turns out that Wodehouse’s studiously vapid effervescence is a bit beyond Moore, who has always been, even at his funniest, a bit heavy-handed).
I’ve talked elsewhere about why I think Lost Girls is both disappointing and pernicious. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Promethea, but I’m not a fan. Douglas Wolk claims that those of us who chafed at the series’ plunge into plotlessness didn’t get it — that Moore was just trying to teach us about cosmology and magic in an entertaining way. Alas, it wasn’t entertaining, and the art, which was clearly supposed to carry the day, simply wasn’t anywhere near worth looking at on its own. And, frankly, while Moore has many talents, cosmologist is simply not one of them.
But and still, compared to Miller, Gaiman, and even Morrison, Moore still seems like the one most likely, at some point, to be able to repeat his glory days. Where Gaiman has abandoned the medium, and Miller and Morrison seem unable to do anything but compulsively repeat themselves, Moore has kept trying, and when he fails it tends to be in new and inventive ways. Not that he doesn’t have his series of tricks, or that his body of work isn’t consistent. But in numerous ways, he seems to keep challenging himself. He works with new and interesting artists for one thing — I’m not a big Melinda Gebbie fan, but you can’t argue that she draws like Steven Bissette. And, for another, you can see him, over time, trying to wrestle with new material and new ways of approaching his art. He’s tried, for example, to respond to Grant Morrison’s critique of Watchman’s downer grittiness; to loosen up his dependence on massive structure; to incorporate some of Chris Ware’s approach to layout; to use more explicit material; to move away from super-heroes, to write prose. His success has varied widely, but it certainly doesn’t feel like he’s in a rut. And as long as he’s not, it seems possible that he’ll scale the heights again…or at least keep producing flawed efforts that are worth thinking about and arguing with.