This review initially appeared in The Comics Journal.
Alan Moore/Travis Charest et. al.
Alan Moore/et. al.
In Watchmen, Alan Moore answered the question, “What if super-heroes were real?” In his work on WildC.A.T.S., he asks instead, “What if Chris Claremont were real?” Like Claremont’s X-Men and its many imitators, Moore’s WildC.A.T.S. is basically a soap-opera with tights, complete with love triangles, amnesia, false deaths, and gobs of interpersonal angst. The difference is that Claremont’s characters always behaved like a twelve-year-old’s melodramatic fantasy of adulthood. Moore’s tend to act like an adult’s melodramatic fantasy of adulthood. This is perhaps most apparent in the approach the two series take towards evil. In Claremont’s world, good guys can be egotistical and abrasive, but they’re still essentially good— which is why much of the bickering in the classic X-Men series seems peculiarly unmotivated. The characters tend to argue simply because its good drama, not because they actually have different goals or even perspectives. When Jean Grey goes over to the dark side, it’s a result of mystical Jungian gobbledygook, not because she’s prone to recognizable human impulses like greed or hate.
Moore’s characters, on the other hand, are, in fact, greedy and petty and cruel and even bigoted. You can see why they dislike each other, because they do in fact have unlikable traits. This isn’t quite the same thing as saying that they are true-to-life. This is pulp adventure, and the merciless grinding of the plot is a lot more important than the coherence of any individual caught up in it. Would Zealot really repudiate her teammates and friends after a few days of flattery? Is Majestic really dumb enough to fall for Tao’s elementary reverse psychology? Probably not — but the way the corruption works is true-to-life, even if the characters themselves aren’t.
As with the philosophy, so with the plotting — where Claremont relies almost exclusively on a handful of gimmicks (how many times do the X-Men get captured and then break free, anyway?), Moore is actually able to come up with intelligent, surprising twists on a regular basis. The two central arcs of the WildC.A.T.S. series (Tao’s machinations and the fact that the war with the daemonites is not at all what it seems) are both infinitely more coherent, surprising, and affecting than anything Claremont ever came up with.
In other words, and to no one’s surprise, Moore is a vastly better writer than Claremont. And yet, despite its limitations, I think Claremont’s run on X-Men actually holds up better than Moore’s stint on WildC.A.T.S. In part, it’s the art. Many illustrators worked on Moore’s stories, but there’s little point in separating them. The pages are a jumble of cluttered panels, garish colors, and improbable poses. In comparison, John Byrne’s X-Men work looks startlingly good — the layouts are clear, the faces pleasant, the bodies stylized in a consistent and professional way. It’s not Jack Kirby, but it’s not embarrassing either.
Indeed, Byrne’s open, even innocent art fits easily into Claremont’s story-telling. Yes, Claremont’s moral sense and plotting skills are, to put it kindly, not of the best. But that’s part of what gave the X-Men its directness and freshness. Though it’s obviously genre hack-work in some sense, you get the feeling that Claremont really believes in his tropes. It would be churlish to sneer at him for telling us, for the fiftieth time, that Colossus is just a Russian farm boy, just as it would be churlish to roll one’s eyes at the cookie-cutter descriptions of Nancy Drew’s friends placed at the beginning of each book in the series. The formula is the formula; its simple-mindedness is also its simplicity, which is to say, its charm.
Moore really believes in these tropes too, but in a way that’s a good bit more abstract and circuitous. When he tackles straight-forward genre hackwork he’s always performing a kind of intricate shell-game, moving back and forth between irony, nostalgia, and a complicated sense of wonder. When it works, it’s a marvel. For instance, my favorite character in the series (and Moore’s as well, I think) is a murderous, foul-mouthed killer cyborg named Maxine. It’s only at the end of the run that it becomes clear to both readers and WildC.A.T.S. that Maxine is less Wolverine than Kitty Pryde — and that moment of revelation is probably the most moving sequence in the comic.
At least in part Moore’s hand is so sure here because Maxine is his character. He’s interested in her, and so he’s paying attention to what he’s doing. When his concentration slips, though, the results are ugly. The Voodoo mini-series in the Wild Worlds volume can be seen as a bland desecration of Moore’s Swamp Thing zombie story from the mid-80s, replacing that tale’s subtle take on race and time with a dull serial killer yarn tricked out with exoticized voodoo touches. The Majestic spotlight, with the hero the lone survivor at the end of eternity, is more entertaining, though it too feels second-hand — Neil Gaiman, for example, did much the same thing, and did it better, in his Books of Magic mini-series.
As always, though, everybody saves their worst efforts for the crossovers. Moore participates in two, and they both do indeed suck. The first is a generic company-wide crisis event, filled with meaningless battles and lots of stentorian bellowing about self-actualization. The second — a WildC.A.T.S./Spawn crossover included in the Wild Worlds volume — is even worse. In a riff on Claremont’s “Days of Future Past,” we are treated to a time travel story in which we see the coming apocalypse and our heroes’ hideous fates. As an emblematic moment of crappiness, I give you… The Harem of Super-Heroines! Yes, Moore has gone there. Former heroes are forced to put aside their degrading, revealing costumes and put on degrading, not-quite-as-revealing bikinis. Then they are raped by evil guards and ogled by evil fanboys who, I guess, have never seen actual women and so aren’t put off by the glaring anatomical inconsistencies in the illustrations.
Claremont’s classic X-Men was for kids. It never quite tipped over into adult themes and as a result, it never managed to produce anything as stupidly, ineffectually tasteless as this. Moore’s Watchmen was basically for adults, and its handling of sexuality was sensitive and thoughtful. Moore’s WildC.A.T.S., on the other hand, is, like most super-hero comics these days, intended for adults who want to pretend they’re kids. And while I appreciate the man’s craftsmanship and genius, nostalgic self-aggrandizement is a lousy foundation for art.
For more recent Alan Moore blogging, check out Tom on Miracleman.