Who's stronger: Alan Moore or Grant Morrison?

A year ago, in response to a request from my erstwhile coauthor to comment on Alan Moore's spoiled-brat media tour, I posited an alternate-universe Moore:

Imagine if, instead of bouncing from publisher to publisher, he had followed a path through mainstream comics like that of Grant Morrison, who has alternated periods writing mainstream superhero books (New X-Men, JLA, and soon Batman) with work on his own creations for DC's mature-readers imprint Vertigo (The Invisibles, The Filth, We3 -- all of which Morrison owns outright). Imagine if, instead of writing Superman homages in Supreme and Tom Strong, Moore had spent a year writing Superman, or, instead of WildCATs, JLA. I suspect Moore's later work would be more satisfying, and mainstream comics would certainly be richer for his involvement.
In the year since I wrote those idle words, Grant Morrison has apparently been thinking about Moore's career this way too, to the point of embedding the idea in his recent Seven Soldiers series, and most recently issuing a subtle challenge to rival and bête noire Moore in an interview posted last week.

How all this works is going to take some explaining.

In 1990, Grant Morrison wrote himself into the DC Universe. Morrison was wrapping up his run on Animal Man, over the course of which the animal-powered protagonist had gradually gained metafictional self-awareness and begun to suspect that he was a character in a story being written by someone else. Comics are often preoccupied with different realities – parallel worlds, alternate futures. Morrison’s big idea was to play with the boundary between the fictional reality in which Animal Man uses his powers to fight crime and the apparently-less-fictional reality in which Grant Morrison sits in a flat in Glasgow writing Animal Man for DC Comics. (Morrison, who practices chaos magic and has taken a lot of drugs, would probably say that neither reality is any more fictional than the other.) In his final issue, he and the character had a long and mind-blowing conversation about all this.

Although no one had done such a deep pomo metafiction thing in superhero comics before, other DC writers and editors had appeared in the company’s comics, usually in cute little jokes like this 1985 issue of Superman, which was a 70th-birthday present for longtime editor Julius Schwartz.

Twenty years later Morrison wrote Seven Soldiers, a crazy, brilliant web of interlocking narrative that appeared as seven separate minseries about peripheral DC characters. On the fringes of 7S was a set of shadowy agents known sometimes as the Seven Unknown Men and at other times as the Time Tailors, who were seen performing surgery on the fabric of the story itself. These figures, Morrison said in interviews, were himself and Schwartz and the rest – the writers and editors who had appeared in DC comics in the past. Morrison recognized that he and the others, by breaching the wall between fiction and reality, had become citizens of the DC Universe, available to be deployed into stories just like any other minor DC character.

This idea of deploying is important. Any comic set in the DCU (or the Marvel Universe, or etc. etc.) is both a thing-in-itself and a single piece of a massive collaborative project that stretches back (in DC’s case) to 1938. (Name another kind of story being written today that’s connected to a story from seventy years earlier, not as a retelling or an appropriation but as a continuation.) When Grant Morrison writes a story about Animal Man, he’s making artistic use of a character made up by Dave Wood and Carmine Infantino in 1965 and amended by countless others. When he writes about Zatanna and Mr. Miracle and the Guardian in Seven Soldiers he’s grabbing whatever shiny things catch his eye from seventy years of storytelling and playing with them. And this deploying thing is not just the form or condition of Seven Soldiers – it is, in a way that will become clear in a few paragraphs, the theme.

The villains in Seven Soldiers are a bunch of evil time-travelling fairies called the Sheeda, who come to our present for something called the Harrowing. The Sheeda are an agricultural race, and what they farm is civilizations: they’ve given us 20,000 years to develop culture and technology and society, and now they’re coming to reap, to raze our civilization and feed off it, leaving a few humans alive to “seed the crop” for the next Harrowing in twenty millennia.

This is weird enough, maybe. But there’s more: the Sheeda were set in motion by one of those Seven Unknown Men, a renegade referred to as the Terrible Time Tailor. The real behind-the-scenes villain, in other words, is one of the DC writers/editors who has appeared in a comic at some point. And it’s pretty clear, from a bunch of clues in 7S that we won’t go into right now, that the villain in question is Alan Moore.

Moore than a feeling

Morrison’s enmity toward Moore is perhaps comics’ most outrageous instance of the Anxiety of Influence. Moore was the first British writer to come to prominence in American comics, and in his wake DC sent over recruiters to see if the British comics industry might have any more like him. Among others, they found a Scottish kid named Grant Morrison and let him write a Batman graphic novel and a book about a minor hero called Animal Man. That Batman story, and the first few issues of Animal Man, are very much in the style of Swamp Thing-era Alan Moore: serious, wordy, aiming to lend psychological and thematic and poetic depth to what are basically superhero stories. Within a year or so, though, Morrison was exuberantly throwing off the shackles of Moore-imitation and developing the riffs that mark his own work: surrealist humor, metanarrative game-playing, and the ambition to distill the least realistic, zaniest, most colorful aspects of Silver Age comics into dense, fast-paced stories packed with strangeness and surprise.

Alan Moore's best-known work is still Watchmen, the canonical new-wave superhero comic. The non-comics people who read Watchmen (and there are many: it was listed on Time’s top 100 novels of the twentieth century) probably don’t realize this, but the characters in Watchmen were based on a line of superheroes published by an also-ran company named Charlton Comics in the 1960s. The history goes like this: in the early ’80s DC acquired Charlton’s characters, superheroes like Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle. Alan Moore looked at the Charlton heroes and realized that, because they were so derivative of DC’s and Marvel’s characters, they comprised a complete set of superheroic archetypes – the superman with godlike powers, the gritty urban vigilante, the millionaire crimefighter with the crazy gadgets – and could thus be used to tell a very nice Ultimate Superhero Story. Moore pitched such a project to Dick Giordano, then DC’s executive editor. Giordano declined to hand Moore the reins to the Charlton characters, but encouraged him to create new superhero-archetype characters to use in their place. So Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, and the Question became Rorschach, and Moore wrote Watchmen and Dave Gibbons drew the pictures and the series sold huge and was one of the first comics to be collected in a mass-audience paperback and was in general an Event.

At some point after Watchmen’s release, Moore stopped working for DC. In an interview with the Comics Journal in 1990, Moore gave explained the split thus: After Watchmen was done, Moore was afraid DC would cheapen his work with spinoffs and sequels. During a meeting, one of the top editors told him that no such secondary works would be published as long as Moore maintained a good working relationship with DC. “I don’t respond well to threats,” Moore told the Journal, and so he walked. Still, DC hasn't done anything with the Watchmen characters in the twenty years since the end of Moore’s series – despite the fact that, say, a Rorschach solo book would have been a sure commercial bet.

This story, I think, reveals why Grant Morrison cast Alan Moore as the villain in Seven Soldiers. From a Morrisonian perspective, Moore, like the Sheeda, wants only to reap, never to sow: he took the Charlton characters, and Swamp Thing, and other DC properties, and he used them for his own purposes and refused to contribute anything to the common pool of ideas. (What characters or concepts in today’s DC Universe have their origin at the hand of Alan Moore? Well, there’s, uh, Mogo.) Morrison, by contrast, prides himself on giving as much as he takes. Part of his plan for Seven Soldiers, for instance, was to rehabilitate obscure characters for other writers to take over. So Jack Kirby creates Klarion the Witch-Boy in 1973, and Klarion mostly drops out of sight until Grant Morrison uses him in 2006 and provides him with a milieu and a supporting cast, and three months later he shows up in an issue of Robin written by Adam Beechen.

By Morrison’s lights, then, when Moore got protective of the Watchmen characters, he wasn’t just being precious and arty; he was being selfish. Worse, he was hoarding characters that had ultimately been invented by other hands. What Moore should have done (again, from Morrison’s perspective) is to say, “Yeah, we borrowed these characters, and changed them in certain ways, and we had a great time with them and got to tell our story. And now if anyone else wants to pick up anything we’ve done and run with it, well, that’ll just enrich the massive collaborative fictional tapestry that is the DCU.” Which is, of course, pretty much exactly the opposite of what he did.

Permission Granted

And so we come to this week’s interview. The occasion for the interview was the end of 52, a yearlong weekly DCU-spanning series on which Morrison was one of four writers. (One of the remarkable things about it was Morrison’s willingness to collaborate on an equal basis with three writers who have their talents but who are not artistically in his ballpark.) The end of the series featured something DC fans have wanted for a long time: the restitution of the multiverse. (In a nut: from 1961 until 1986, the DCU consisted of an infinite number of parallel earths; from 1986 until this month it consisted of just one earth; now it consists of parallel earths again, although only 52 of them.) In the final issue of 52 we saw glimpses of a few of those parallel earths, one of which appears to feature the Charlton heroes: Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, the Question, and the rest. Remember, these are the characters that Alan Moore adapted for Watchmen.

And in the interview, Morrison says "If you miss Vic Sage as the Question [Sage died of lung cancer in 52], you should be able to follow the adventures of Vic's counterpart on the Charlton/Watchmen world of Earth 4." Not the Charlton world -- the Charlton/Watchmen world.

Don’t think Morrison doesn’t know what he’s saying here. He’s saying, Those Watchmen characters don’t belong to Alan Moore, they belong to DC. He didn’t create them himself, he adapted them from other people's creations. They are on the table. They are in play. And his work is part of the soil that DC’s writers are tilling, even if he wishes it wasn’t.

Or, If you don’t play nice, if you don’t share with the other kids, we’re going to take your toys away from you.

Let me be clear: I don’t think the DC brass have some big plan to reclaim the Watchmen characters from Alan Moore (although you never know, especially with the Watchmen movie looking like it's finally a go). I think it's mostly just Morrison having some fun. I suspect that when he said "the Charlton/Watchmen world" he was grinning like the proverbial canary-eating cat, and the only thing compromising his happiness was the well-known fact that Alan Moore doesn’t have an internet connection.