24 February 2012

Alan Moore's Twilight Proposal

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

Honestly I didn't intend the irony, but this week's FMF, looking at Alan Moore's never-published Twilight proposal, also represents the twilight of Flashmob Fridays. This is our final outing.

I love the idea of a bunch of great writers getting together each week to take many and varied looks at a particular comic or graphic novel (...or unpublished proposal), and I'd be more than happy if someone else picked up the ball and ran with it somewhere else. But my current schedule and energy level just aren't allowing me to enjoy bringing this thing to life every week as I enjoyed it when we first began. And to half-ass it week in and week out is not fair to the contributors here, or the people coming to read their work each week.

So thanks for hanging out with us here every week, and I hope you'll check out our efforts over at Trouble With Comics, where any future writings-about-comics by at least myself and Christopher Allen (as well as any FMF contributor who wants to join us -- the door's always open, gang) are likely to be found.

With that, here's our final Flashmob Fridays. Take it away, gang.

Roger Green:

Okay, that tricky Alan David Doane fellow threw us a curve this week. Instead of critiquing a comic book, we're to evaluate an "unpublished series proposal for DC Comics" written by Alan Moore that runs 27 pages and was written more than two decades ago. Oh, why not?

Moore made some cogent observations about previous attempts to tie together events of a comic book universe. He notes the merchandising angle that Marvel used to create the Secret Wars series and crossovers in 1984 and 1985. In fact, if the Wikipedia page about Secret Wars is correct, it was the Mattel merchandising that dictated at least some of the story structure of Secret Wars. As Moore noted, and I agree, the "assembled multitude of characters look merely banal, which I personally believe happened with Secret Wars." It was also a retailer's puzzlement. The ancillary books would likely receive a spike in sales, but for how long? Would readers decide that they did not REALLY have to read the crossover books at all, but merely follow the story in the titular book? Reorders, in those days, were pretty difficult to come by in those days, and reprints just didn't happen that often.

Comic readers are often a loyal lot. While I wasn't a big DC fan in the 1980s, I got the sense from our store's customers that the result of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths was unsettling. As Moore put it: "In the wake of the time-altering at the end of the Crisis we are left with a universe where the entire past continuity of DC, for the most part, simply never happened." That angered some fans that "the larger part of DC's continuity will simply have to be scrapped and consigned to one of Orwell's memory holes along with a large amount of characters who, more than simply being dead, are now unpeople."

Interestingly, Moore shows himself to be a bit of a fanboy himself, and opposed to messing too much with certain conventions when he noted his disappointment "at the end of the first Superman film, when he turns time back to save Lois. It ruined the small but genuine enjoyment that I'd got from that first movie and destroyed all credibility for any of the following sequels as far as I was concerned."

Continuity of a 40- or 50- or 70-year old icon is always complicated unless the character is allowed to age. "There are a number of people in the industry...who feel that it's time to break down the continuity and try to get rid of a lot of the rather anal and obsessive attitudes that have been allowed to dominate the marketplace and to some degree have hindered it in its periodic attempts to be taken seriously." Anyone who listen to comic book fans debate incessantly knows to be true. "I suppose a shining example of this would be Frank [Miller's] Dark Knight."

Moore believed his Twilight outline would serve both the "audience thirsty for the stability that an ordered continuity gives them" and those would throw "continuity to the winds altogether." Yet it shouldn't be the dystopian model used in Dark Knight or his own Watchmen.

Soon thereafter, Moore got into the details of the various "Houses" of superheroes, and I rather tuned out at this point. Whether it would or would not have worked is impossible to say, in retrospect. That Moore spent so much time analyzing the CONTEXT of the crossover was much more interesting to me than the storyline itself.

Christopher Allen:

It's difficult and not really fair to review an unfinished project. In this case we have a project that wasn't really even begun: Twilight, a proposal for a massive DC crossover series that would have been a big DC event around 1987. Seemingly on the strength of Watchmen, Alan Moore was asked to come up with it. I'm not sure if his bad feelings towards DC developed this early to kill the project, or DC just decided to go in another direction, but it never happened. DC instead followed Legends with a ho-hum event called Millennium and went on from there.

Like most Moore scripts, this is fun to read, and I thought I might just make notes as I'm reading it rather than waiting until the end. First off, it's charming but also sad how much of a DC team player Moore is trying to be at this point. He's coming off Watchmen and looking to give DC another big hit that meets their commercial goals while hopefully being a creatively rich and satisfying experience. Moore understands that his job isn't just to deliver a good book; he's got to give other creators good ideas to mine for new or revamped series of their own. He also knows that DC will want the book to provide merchandising options, like Twilight t-shirts and the like, and he's okay with it. He's engaged with the current mainstream comics world, effusive with praise for Miller's Dark Knight, respectfully critical of Secret Wars.

At the same time, there is a sense that Moore is going to try to resist going too far with working out the story until the project is approved.

The proposal is subtitled, “First Gleamings” and the self-deprecating tone of it makes explicit he can't guarantee he's going to get to the finish line. Although Moore asks for the reader's (editor's) indulgence that fuzzy or flat areas will be polished up and improved in the actual scripting, there is at the same time a feeling that some of these details will be figured out at the moment Moore is writing the proposal.

One interesting thing about the proposal is that Moore expresses concern that big reboot events like Crisis on Infinite Earths can make older readers feel that the stories they grew up with, that meant something to them and for which they're nostalgic, have been invalidated by the fiat of the current hot creator or editorial powers-that-be. It's a core concern of Moore's, and it reminds me of his famous quote that all comics stories are imaginary. At the time, he was attempting to show there was no difference between the stories a company like DC deemed “imaginary” and the ones that were considered part of continuity. Essentially, he's saying that it's really up to the reader to take what they want from the stories, to believe or not believe in whichever one they want.

Moore eventually starts laying out the basic idea of Twilight, which is an attempt to put superheroes into a mythical context by using actual mythological underpinnings, in this case the Norse end-of-days myth, Ragnarok, when the old gods are killed off. This in itself is not a particularly original idea. Offhand, I know only about fifteen years earlier, Jack Kirby's Fourth World Saga drew inspiration from Ragnarok as well, though his books were canceled before he really got around to the Darkseid/Orion battle that might have brought on Ragnarok. And of course, Thor writers have written about preventing Ragnarok for decades. But as they say, it's all in the execution.

Moore recognizes that superheroes, while arguably our modern mythological characters, usually lack mythological resonance in the actual stories because superhero stories rarely have an end. He cites DKR as one of the few that has this resonance because it does provide an end to Superman and Batman, while at the same time making it irrelevant whether any creators after Miller ever actually fill in the gaps to make DKR the “real”, in-continuity end to Superman and Batman after all. It doesn't matter. What's ironic is that this is one of the reasons Watchmen is still resonant over a quarter-century later. It probably would have been well-regarded if it had featured the Charlton characters originally planned for use—characters that went on into other DC Comics stories not long after, from other creators. But using new characters in a self-contained story that felt complete is unfortunately a rather rare thing in comics. Here, Moore is interested less in trying to create a similar luxurious situation than in creating something that feels like a meaningful modern legend that creates new possibilities for further exploration while being simultaneously just another possibility, a story that doesn't close off other stories or the feelings readers have about them. It even allows for the revisiting of old continuities and discarded storylines and timelines. It seems like about the best way to try to put together a work-for-hire story, a very generous challenge to oneself.

The mechanism for revisiting these sometimes wonky but charming old stories and characters like Brother Power, Prez, the Rainbow Batman and such, is a “fluke field” created by old Legion of Super-Heroes villain The Time Trapper, perhaps facilitated by the timestream already being weakened by the Crisis and other continuity-ordering/altering events.

Moore envisions the story structurally much like Watchmen; twelve issues, no ads, 28 pages each. There’s an end-of-days event going on 20 or 30 years in the future, and so the superheroes of that time send a message back in time, to then-current DC continuity, hoping those heroes can prevent this Twilight. He envisions Legion of Super-Heroes villain The Time Trapper creating, yes, a time trap, in order to prevent heroes from stopping his evil future plan. This creates a time bubble or “fluke field” that allows for the existence of characters previously booted out of continuity like Prez, Brother Power, presumably alternate Earth versions of other heroes, and also lends itself to use in current continuity LOSH stories by Paul Levitz as well as the rest of the DCU, if the other creators want to play along. Eventually, the heroes escape and return to their respective times, while Rip Hunter goes to the future and meets an older John Constantine, who tells him to go back to our time and enlist the aid of the younger Constantine to prevent the Twilight.

The story, in Moore’s mind, will ripple back and forth between different times, so in the dystopic future he sees, the superheroes essentially rule the world, having had leadership thrust upon them in the wake of governments and social institutions crumbling. They are divided into various houses, as with royalty. If this sounds a bit like Kingdom Come, Squadron Supreme or House of M, well, yeah. I’ll leave that for others to dig into the various similarities. We have the House of Steel, led by Superman and wife Wonder Woman (now Superwoman), and they’ve got two kids, the son being a bad apple. Next is the House of Thunder, with a married Captain and Mary Marvel, though it’s a marriage of convenience and strategy, and she’s having an affair with the now-grown Captain Marvel Jr., who struggles under the shadow of Captain Marvel. This is interesting, as you’ve got Moore exploring not just, as he describes, a Guinevere/Lancelot type of story, but it’s also Oedipal and quite similar to the conflict he explored in Marvelman between Marvelman and Kid Marvelman. And, let’s face it, it’s a de rigueur plot for any superhero family: the sidekick or junior member always rebels against the patriarchal original hero.

The House of Titans is made up of grown, grimmer Teen Titans members, including a Nightwing every bit as driven as Batman but lacking his compassion. It’s funny; when this proposal was assigned to us to review, one of my colleagues felt that the natural course of a review of an unpublished project would be a “I wouldn’t do it that way” approach, and I thought to myself that that was the last thing I would be concerned with. And yet, I have to say I don’t see Nightwing this way at all. He not only had parents who loved him, like Bruce Wayne, but unlike Bruce, he was around them all the time, essentially learning his acrobat’s trade from them. I kind of think he would have been a bit warmer and well-adjusted than Bruce, and indeed, that’s generally how he’s portrayed. But that’s not to say Moore couldn’t have done a very credible job with his interpretation, or that that interpretation might have changed a little or a lot as the real writing began.

After intriguing takes on the increasingly robotic Cyborg and mentally deteriorating Changeling (now Chimera), we meet The House of Mystery, the old DC spook story anthology title being a slam-dunk for use in Twilight’s vision of Houses. As one might expect, it’s peopled by DC’s supernatural or magical characters like Deadman, Zatanna, the Spectre, and a reformed Felix Faust. Moore does not at this point have much to say about them and they don’t look to figure very prominently in the plot, so he moves on to The House of Secrets. They’re analogous to the Legion of Doom, with Lex Luthor, Catwoman, Captain Cold, Dr. Sivana, Gorilla Grodd and other villains. They’re the bad guys who’ve managed to survive the superhero purges of villains and have become the de facto protectors of a remote region of Nevada. Moore hints here at moral relativism, which is clearly a major theme in a story about heroes who’ve become corrupt, warring factions.

The House of Justice is made up of some ex-Justice Leaguers and second-or-third generation heroes like a female Dr. Light, a female Flash (Slipstream), Wonder Girl (now Wonder Woman). The House of Tomorrow is comprised of time-lost characters like Rip Hunter, Jonah Hex, and Space Ranger. The presence of a younger version of Time Trapper indicates this House might be fairly important to stopping the Twilight. The House of Lanterns is shuttered, all aliens having been banished from Earth, other than the grandfathered-in Superman. They’ll be pulled into the story somehow.

One thing I like about Moore’s vision of the future is that he wants to avoid the clich├ęd, nuke-ravaged version and instead focus on a society that has unraveled and is evolving into something else, as happened with the Industrial Revoltion. What exactly that is and how it will be explored, he’s not so clear on in the proposal.

While even Moore himself has taken a share of the blame for, and turned against, the mid-'80s grim ‘n gritty, deconstructionist take on superheroes that became the status quo by 1990, that doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun to read what he would have done in that regard with Twilight. We’ve got the remaining heroes living in a rundown barrio, unaligned with any Houses and, aside from Constantine, seemingly rather useless. There’s a drunken, gibbering Uncle Sam, a Doll Man who’s mutated into some sort of six inch walking stick type of insect-man, the former Phanton Lady as a kind of caretaker/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold type, and a legless Blackhawk, recruiting a new squadron from the barrio’s leather bars. Doubtful DC would have let that get through. Plastic Man is a male prostitute because, well, why not?

Moore also touches on the idea of the exchanging-body superhero, both with Captain Marvel and Congorilla. In the case of Congorilla, his human form is 90 years old and frail, but alive, while none of the Marvel Family’s human forms age. Congorilla spends all his time as the immortal gorilla, now a Gotham crime lord, while Captain Marvel is the only one of the Marvel Family who still occasionally changes to his human counterpart, Billy Batson, still a child. This causes problems in his marriage, which Moore doesn’t explain yet, but it would seem that this difference makes Marvel a character who could conceivably change and break out of the downward spiral he and the rest of the heroes are on. Also, it’s pretty clear Moore intended to use the detail about not changing back to human to symbolize and help explain the detachment from humanity these superheroes experienced, which led to their corruption and justifies their bloody ends in the Ragnarok event.

Curiously, Moore casts Green Arrow and Black Canary as editors of a radical newspaper, and two of the nicest characters in the book (thus the ones most identifiable to readers). It’s an unusual take on Green Arrow, who usually works well as a loudmouth (if righteous) jerk, but as so many heroes have taken dark turns it makes sense to take one who was already somewhat antisocial and make him a better person.

It should be no surprise to anyone that when in doubt about characterization, Moore gives a character some sordid or darkly comic details. Bondage figures into The Question, Platinum from the Metal Men is a sex worker (dating Robotman), Gold has to hide because gold is in such demand he’s in danger of being melted down. Billy Batson has gone quietly mad, apparently due to a mental puberty and maturation in his prepubescent body.

Again, as with Watchmen, there is a mystery to kick off the story, this one a sordid, bondage-filled locked-room murder. I thought the solution to where the murderer was would have to do with the murderer killing an ancestor and thus ceasing to exist, but no, it’s a little more prosaic: invisibility. The rest of Moore’s plot involves a lot of hero-on-hero violence, the arrival of the Lanterns and other aliens to essentially rescue humanity from the so-called heroes, a kind of unmasking and rolling up of sleeves, with a hard-earned utopia ahead.

Looking at all this again, despite the hundreds of words above I find it really is impossible to “review” an unpublished work. You recount details and ideas, because that’s all there is. You notice similarities of themes in other Moore work, and similarities to actual published work that came after this proposal was written. But to say whether it “works” or not is impossible, because it’s not finished. We have some story beats, lots of character details, and several sketches of character conflicts, but there’s no dialogue. There are no captions or page breakdowns. No artwork. Who would have brought this to life on the page? There are indications of storytelling conceits that would add resonance to the work, like the decrepit, jingoistic monologues of Uncle Sam possibly tying into the action on subsequent scenes, but we don’t see any real examples of this in action. It’s an ambitious work, no doubt. Whether it’s more or less ambitious than Watchmen is unfair, because it’s unfinished and could have changed a lot in the actual scripting. In the end, I feel like it was a lost opportunity for DC that certainly wasn’t replaced by Kingdom Come or anything else, but the fact it never got done is no real tragedy. It presents itself as a potentially very rich and entertaining story, surely one of the more interesting unpublished superhero stories ever, but Moore has gotten to explore similar themes and ideas in subsequent work like Supreme, Promethea and elsewhere, and indeed, the central theme of power being a corrupting influence was already done to a faretheewell in Watchmen.

Joseph Gualtieri:

There is something odd about reviewing a comic that never was for a comics review site. Except, well, you probably have read Twilight, and I don’t just mean that you found a copy of Moore’s proposal on the web before DC issued a cease and desist letter. Over the 25 years since Moore wrote the Twilight proposal, DC has strip-mined it dry for many of its ideas. The most infamous example of this Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s 1995 Kingdom Come, which even mined Moore’s Houses iconography in its ads. Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales’s Identity Crisis (2004), too, owes a debt to Twilight, in this case taking other key half of the plot, the locked room murder mystery (which is not handled half as well as Moore’s). It’s hard not to see shades of Twilight in numerous other works though — Steve Darnell and Ross’s Uncle Sam (1997), Geoff Johns’s Booster Gold (2007) and Flashpoint (2011), and even Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers (2005) and Final Crisis (2008) all take an element or two from it, and that’s not even counting how Moore correctly predicts further Crises down the line to muck with DC’s continuity — Zero Hour (1994), the Kingdom (1999), Infinite Crisis (2005), and Flashpoint again.

Re-reading the proposal for the first time in years two things struck me. The first is that there is no way DC would publish the plot as-is. Structurally, the time travel device involving the Time Trapper Moore uses to set up the scenario is on the complex side even for a time travel tale, and just seems superfluous to the actual story. I can’t see why it’s there unless it was a sop to editorial concerns of the time (pun intended). Then there’s some of the content. Blackhawk picking up teenage boys is a gag (he’s really recruiting them into a private army), sure, but Moore also has Sandra Knight sleeping around, Plastic Man as a gigolo, and an incestuous relationship between Billy and Mary Batson (more on this in a bit). Especially after what happened with Watchmen and the Quality characters, I’m curious as to what extent Moore included some of this material just so DC would cut it, leaving content he really wanted in there.

The other thing that occurred to me this time about Twilight is how in a lot of ways it’s the ultimate product of Moore’s decade of strip-mining Robert Mayer’s Superfolks that saw him produce Marvelman, Watchmen, and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” When Moore finally spoke publicly about Mayer’s book, he tried to minimize its role in his career and attack Grant Morrison for bringing it up (in a coded manner) in a magazine column:

I can’t even remember when I read it. It would probably have been before I wrote Marvelman, and it would have had the same kind of influence upon me as the much earlier – probably a bit early for Grant Morrison to have spotted it – Brian Patten’s poem, ‘Where Are You Now, Batman?’, [...] I’d still say that Harvey Kurtzman’s Superduperman probably had the preliminary influence, but I do remember Superfolks and finding some bits of it in that same sort of vein. I also remember reading Joseph Torchia’s The Kryptonite Kid around that time. I found that quite moving. I can’t remember whether… I did read it, certainly, but as I say, I think Grant Morrison, by his own admission, said in an interview that, back at that stage of his career, that was his way of making himself famous, by actually attacking a more famous writer, who incidentally had got him his job at Vertigo.

The Twilight proposal may be the best example of just how untrue what Moore said is — he clearly internalized Superfolks to such a degree that he never, ever makes note of the fact that Mary and Billy Batson’s relationship is an incestuous one. For those unfamiliar with Superfolks, the coupling of the book’s Batson analogues is a key plot point, producing one of the book’s major villains. Meyer’s take on the Marvel Family hangs all over Moore’s take on Billy’s sexuality in the proposal.

The Alan Moore writing Twilight is a very different person from the one we’ve all come to know over the last few years worth of interviews; some of that obviously has to do with his awful relationship with DC, but the Alan Moore who wrote Twilight was also quite clearly into superhero comics, particularly in their post-modern, third wave form in a way that’s incredible discordant with the Moore of today. Comparing the ending of Twilight to that of Kingdom Come may reveal that more than anything else. Kingdom Come, for all its sturm und drang, ends on a happy, hopeful note as the superheroes give up their identities and re-dedicate themselves to humanity. In Twilight, the epic clash of the different superhero houses ends with nearly everybody dead and an inter-dimensional war being fought on multiple fronts across the galaxy. And then the John Constantine of the past screws over his future self by denying himself true love. Twilight, despite just being a proposal, is dramatically more satisfying than its foremost actually published child, which is absolutely hilarious.

There is a lot more to talk about with regards to Twilight, but I think it may be best to wrap it up here, and leave some surprises for those of you who have not read it yet. It’s a shockingly satisfying as a read by itself, and there’s some excellent dramatic irony in there with how Moore starts off with a section on its marketing potential. Frankly, we should all be thankful that we live in an age when it’s possible for something like this to easily be passed around, as it is an utterly invaluable document in examining Moore’s career and the development of the superhero genre. Track it down if you haven’t already.

1 comment:

  1. This was a great post, I always end up reading everything I can find about Alan Moore online. I've especially enjoyed his interview about Before Watchmen from a few weeks ago.

    By the way, I gave the new Conan a try but Wood and Cloonan didn't impress me. So I'm still reviewing the classic run by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith on my blog: