Graphic Novel Review: DC Universe by Alan Moore (2013)

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DCU by Alan Moore

Simultaneously a celebration of a unique body of comics and a liberal application of salt to long-open wounds, DC Universe by Alan Moore is, as one would suspect, a collection of the odds-and-ends of Moore’s superhero work during his important, often tumultuous tenure with DC Comics. But for the exception of the author’s work on Swamp Thing and Batman: The Killing Joke, all of the work Moore did under the standard of DC Comics is here. Also included, presumably both as a lure for those who already owned the 2006 version of this collection and given the WildStorm Universe’s integration into the DCU under the banner of The New 52 (still called that, somehow, two years into the initiative), is a majority of the non-America’s Best Comics work Moore produced for Image Comics. The result is a volume that both unifies many of the comic books Moore did that are too short to justify individual collected editions while presenting the influential author’s superhero works in schizophrenic disharmony, the 1980s books of a hungry genius rubbing elbows uncomfortably with his more mercenary late-90s output, already largely an extreme response to his Watchmen and V for Vendetta.

The highlights here, of course, are two of the seminal stories in the Superman cannon, “For the Man Who Has Everything” and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Along with Superman/Swamp Thing team-up “The Jungle Line,” Moore only wrote four Superman comics, but they’re enough that his legacy, among other things, will hold him up as one of the best writers to’ve ever worked on the character. Moore begins each with the conceit that Superman is either in mortal peril or already dead, and works quickly to establish that fact in ways that are asynchronous to the Superman mythos. When Superman “died” in 1992, it was at the hands of larger-than-life monstrosity Doomsday. While titanesque marauders threaten Superman here, as well, big bads like Mongul and the Kryptonite Man pale in comparison to biology and ingenuity. In “For the Man Who Has Everything,” Superman receives a strange plant for his birthday that latches on to him and grants him a hallucination of his heart’s desire. In “The Jungle Line,” it’s a miracle fungus spore that survived the trip from Krypton, as Kal-El himself did. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” feints with the threat of a Lex Luthor/Brainiac team, but Luthor’s mental prowess and Brainiac’s galaxy-spanning A.I. pale in comparison to the machinations of fifth-dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzptlk, to whom they are mere pawns.

While “The Jungle Line” is notable mostly for it being one of only a few times Moore’s Swamp Thing interacted with the other denizens of the DC Universe (Superman heads south to die because it isn’t populated by his superhero friends), “For the Man Who Has Everything” and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” offer Clark Kent two very different kinds of wish fulfillment. In the first, Clark imagines a Krypton that never exploded, a House of El discredited and disheveled by Jor-El’s lunatic claim that Krypton was a doomed planet. Kal-El is married to an actress and has children, but Jor-El’s allegiance with a far-right political group and growing sympathy for those banished to the Phantom Zone puts Kal in the middle of a maelstrom he’s powerless before. Meanwhile, Mongul taunts Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin with the knowledge that the Black Mercy grants its victim their heart’s desire, that none willingly leave the flower’s embrace. If the Krypton of his flower-induced dream is what Kal-El wants, then what Moore is arguing for is Superman as an instrument of peace; not a jingoistic, flag-waving ass-kicker, but a man who resorts to logic before falling back on his fists.

“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” offers Clark Kent no room for his ideals, uniting his villains, merely mischievous and truly dangerous alike, in a full-frontal assault on everything that defines Superman as a human being. For a two-issue arc meant to celebrate the outgoing silver age Superman, drawn by principle Superman artist Curt Swain, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow features an unbelievable amount of carnage; the roster of dead Superman friends and foes reads like the rosters of two all-star teams. But even the winking Superman of the silver age was not immune to attrition—Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths cover depicting that Superman crying over the dead body of his cousin Supergirl is one of the definitive single images in comics. And when Supergirl visits Clark Kent in the Fortress of Solitude with the Legion of Superheroes, stopping in from the 30th Century to pay their last respects to Superman on the eve of his battle with Luthor, Brainiac, and the Kryptonite Man, Kent’s shock and horror at being confronted with, to date, his biggest failure as a hero registers as a moment more human than one suspects the spandex set capable of. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is impossibly full of large-screen moments like Lex Luthor’s discovery of Braniac and the siege of the Fortress of Solitude, but it’s the comic’s quiet moments that impress most. The cover of Action Comics #583 shows Superman, near tears, flying away from his assembled friends, civilian and hero alike, who call out “Good-bye Superman! We’ll miss you!” “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” isn’t just a eulogy for a character, but for an entire era of comic books. Superman hasn’t winked in the final panel of one of his comics in the nearly three decades since this arc, and for good reason—few, if any, authors have endeavored to give the beleaguered Man of Steel reason to smile.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow

Nearly 11 years separate that story from WildStorm Spotlight #1, and for good reason—in the aftermath of a long-simmering argument with DC over monetary compensation and censorship, Moore quit the company and swore never to return to corporate comics. In the period between the completion of V for Vendetta and his first work for Image Comics (an issue of Spawn, in 1993), Moore began work on some of the more unusual comics of his career, including Big Numbers, From Hell, and Lost Girls. Much of the superhero work of his tenure at Image, including Moore-owned Jack Kirby homage 1963, was a decided step back from works of such narrative and thematic complexity, and the Image half of DC Universe by Alan Moore suffers in feeling too much like work-for-hire rent-paying stuff from a guy who’d progressed far beyond that. There’s the occasional flourish of that which is uniquely Alan Moore—the sequence in WildStorm Spotlight #1 where Mr. Majestic confronts the end of time is evocative of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s stargate sequence, and Voodoo dabbles in magic and mysticism—but Moore’s writing never quite meshes with WildStorm Studio’s house art style, big ideas colliding with big muscles and bigger breasts, each collapsing from exhaustion beneath the weight of the other elements’ expectations. Moore’s Image Comics work-for-hire run occupies a good half of DC Universe by Alan Moore, under the thinnest of pretenses, and serves better as grist for the rumor mill: along with these characters, DC Comics acquired Moore’s still-formulating America’s Best line when they purchased Jim Lee’s WildStorm Studios in 1999, and while the likes of Tom Strong and Promethea have yet to be integrated into The New 52’s cosmic mish-mash, that hasn’t stopped the company from profiting on works Moore created under the pretense of being free from the chain gang. Collections like this go a long way in proving the author correct when he says in interview after interview that DC Comics can’t make any money except by raiding his closet and stretching out his now ill-fitting clothes over a body he’s grown unfamiliar with.

Combined with the egregious omission of Batman: The Killing Joke (a 48-page prestige format comic that costs $18 on its own) and a sometimes questionable reproduction process (the pages of Moore and Jim Baikie’s Vigilante practically explode beyond the margins of the page for no discernible reason), DC Universe by Alan Moore makes itself inessential to all but those who don’t already have these stories in one way or another. The inclusion of brief Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Phantom Stranger stories illuminate Moore’s growth as a writer, who cut his teeth on the short-by-necessity page counts of Marvel U.K. and 2000 A.D. offerings, but without so much as an essay or fragment from the author’s legendarily detailed scripts, the reader is left on their own to ponder the greater significance of three page Omega Men back-up stories like “Brief Lives” and “A Man’s World,” or, for those disinclined to check out a flop New 52 series like Voodoo, why a four-issue mini-series featuring her has taken the place of The Killing Joke. Moore is one of the figures largely responsible for the critical and popular reassessment of comic books, and an all-encompassing, affordable volume stewarding the conversation of some of his lesser-seen work would be extremely valuable. Sadly, DC Comics continues to consider Moore’s legacy as that of mere cash cow. Maybe they’ll try again in five years, when they’ve got another set of copyrights to renew.

Rating: tied the room together

DC Universe by Alan Moore. Written by Alan Moore. Art by various, including Dave Gibbons, Klaus Janson, Kevin O’Neill, and Curt Swain. Published by DC Comics.