Sunday, March 12, 2006

Steals from the poor and gives to the rich?

My friend John H, among others, wrote this morning to remind me that the New York Times article by Dave Itzkoff on Alan Moore and V For Vendetta is now available online. I've been mulling over this article for a couple of days -- indeed, the ongoing dispute between Moore and DC is something I've thought about a lot over the past few years. Here are some incoherent ramblings on that topic...

Richard Feynman, one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century and one of my personal heroes -- you may remember him from the investigation of the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster -- had a sideline in exposing phony mediums and psychics. One of the odd aspects of paranormal studies is that a great many scientists and learned people have been taken in by the most transparently blatant hoaxes and cons involving seances and spiritualists. Feynman attended such demonstrations and took delight in spotting and exposing the tricks that were being used to perpetrate the fraud. He reasoned -- and I paraphrase his own words very roughly here, for which I apologize -- that great thinkers and educated men were fooled precisely because they went into such situations with the attitude "I am a highly educated fellow with many degrees and professional accomplishments to my name, therefore I am not easily fooled and it would take a great deal to trick me." By contrast, Feynman described his own attitude as "I'm as gullible and easily tricked as anyone. If I see something that disagrees with scientific principles, there's a very good chance I'm being fooled. Let me watch closely and see if I can figure out how it's being done." Armed with this concept, Feynman was indeed able to spot the trickery being used by so-called psychics when so many other scientists had been completely taken in by their own conceit.

If it's not immediately clear what this has to do with Alan Moore, let me describe some things I know about him personally. I can't say I was ever a close friend or acquaintance...but I had two or three fairly long conversations with him back in the mid-Eighties, when Moore attended conventions and comics marketplaces, the days when Swamp Thing was still relatively new and Watchmen was still being dreamed up. He was an approachable person then, and although his self-presentation was already very theatrical and posed, he was pretty open about who he was and where he was coming from.

One important thing about Alan Moore is...well, he might like you to think of him as a hard-nosed bastard like John Constantine or a mystic sage like Doctor Strange, but his self-image is much more like his characters Tom Strong or Ozymandias from Watchmen. The smartest guy in the room? Maybe...if that room is as big as the world. His fundamental concept of the world is "I'm cleverer than you, and that entitles me to respect and deference." I'm sorry if that sounds harsh; the truth is, I liked him a lot and saw no reason to disagree with his self-estimation. I don't think arrogance is, in and of itself, necessarily a bad thing. He is pretty damned clever and he's only being realistic in admitting it. But sometimes he's too damn clever for his own good.

(Not an exaggeration: he once recounted an argument he'd had with an angry editor, and concluded by saying "I'm cleverer than [that editor], that person can't speak to me like that!")

One thing about Moore's writing is the amount of calculation and careful planning. His stories are worked out in tiny detail like clockwork -- any other writer who studies his work is driven to despair by the intricacy of his design. But that's his fiction. That's not Alan Moore the person. Moore in real life is entirely as he presents himself, without artifice. His theatrical pronouncements are fairly transparent as attention-getting ploys go. I'd almost go so far as to call him naive in his lack of duplicity and calculation.

(One of my vivid memories is of Moore at a UK Comic Art Convention during the Eagle Awards ceremony: he took a seat in the very back row of the convention hall, knowing full well that he'd be receiving several awards. Sitting at the back gave him the opportunity to make a big show of continually having to stride to the front of the room, accept his award, and go back to the rear. By the fourth or fifth award, he was theatrically panting and puffing to show his exertion at all the walking back and forth. Yeah, it was hilarious and we all laughed. But it was also a way of wringing just a little bit more attention out of the moment...)

His attitude coming into any kind of negotiation or business dealing is "I can easily see in rational terms that you being as good as your word and honoring your committment to me will be to our mutual benefit. There is no rational reason for you to want to cheat me, therefore I trust you." Of course other people are not like that! So he gets burned by deals that less "clever" people would take in their stride. And there we have the Feynman principle in action: the poor guy who's convinced of his own wisdom and inability to be fooled gets taken in by a contract that says "all rights to this property revert to you, provided we let it go out of print...which of course we never will, because we're a business and publishing this makes us money." Countless writers who are less "clever" would take something like that for granted.

Even worse, when someone like Steve Bissette deals with Moore in what seems to be total good faith and a business arrangement falls through without malice on anyone's part, Moore can only imagine that the publisher was acting with criminal ineptitude. Because why would a business deal ever go bad if someone wasn't being a villain? (Moore had his own go at starting a comics company, which published two or three comics in toto before vanishing; apparently this didn't teach him anything about the difficulties of running a healthy business.)

Anyone who's seen the unspeakable cinematic monstrosity claiming to be The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will understand that Moore is absolutely right in fearing the harm a bad film can do to his professional reputation. I could weep when I think of all the people I've tried to persuade to read the graphic novels who have said "That piece of garbage? I saw that!" But you know, Moore's own protege Neil Gaiman has taken a different path: becoming engaged with the filmmaking process, not alienating the people he works with, and producing some really interesting work for film and television as a result; work that has only enhanced Gaiman's profile. Moore's good friend Frank Miller didn't get bent out of shape by Daredevil or Elektra -- neither of them as entirely unwatchable as LXG but not wonderful either -- and got involved with the process that produced the Sin City film. Mike Mignola got a pretty damn good Hellboy film made that drove people towards reading his work rather than driving them away. Through his unwillingness to dirty his hands with people who are beneath him -- and if they weren't beneath him, why would they be in the film business? -- Moore guaranteed a self-fulfilling prophecy of worthless films that will continue to be made and continue to tarnish his future reputation as a writer.

Moore has a lot to complain about with DC's treatment of him; they've helped make him the single best known comic book writer in the world. Even now they try to avoid offending him further in their public statements -- see Paul Levitz' diplomatic quotes in the Times article -- which is remarkable when you consider the plantation mentality which still controls mainstream comics. But when you're the "cleverest person in the world" it's possible to see yourself as the one true crusader for principle and justice, surrounded on all sides by philistines and conmen who are personally beneath you.

The weird part is...that's actually mostly true! The comic book industry is full of petty criminals and some of the most vile and odious characters you'll find anywhere. As is Hollywood. I'm personally gratified when I read Moore talking about making some executive's head explode by turning down money -- every time he balks at cooperating with another film travesty, they assume it's only a ploy to get more cash, and can't understand why increasing the pay doesn't work. But where he may be doing the right thing, I'm not convinced he's doing it for the right reasons.


  1. I read this while nibbling on a wedge of delicate cheddar, and sipping ginger chamomile tea, and so I feel perfectly situated to say,

    "Many thanks for rendering this portrait of the artist. You do him a credit through your honesty, and yourself the same through your clarity."

    I do think Moore's comportment deserves comparison to R. Crumb's, as an arch-type of celebrity belonging distinctly to the field of sequential art...

  2. Except I know other people like that, who aren't involved in sequential art. You don't have to be in comics to have an ego. You don't actually even have to be employed, heh.

  3. Anyone who's seen the unspeakable cinematic monstrosity claiming to be The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will understand that Moore is absolutely right in fearing the harm a bad film can do to his professional reputation.

    Judging from everything I've read, Moore has no such fears at all. He's often repeated the story of the writer who was asked what he thought of Hollywood "ruining" his books. The writer replied that they hadn't been ruined at all - "there they are, right there on the shelf." The reason he's criticized the script to V is because Joel Silver claimed Moore was "very excited" about the adaptation. That's what offended him, not the quality of the adaptation itself.

  4. Isn't Moore's problem with filmic adaptations of his work that they're filmic adaptations of his work? That a comic book should just be a comic book?

    As for Frank Miller, he's an absolute whore for attention, something Moore isn't. And I'd rather watch Return of Swamp Thing any day before Sin City.

  5. Isn't Moore's problem with filmic adaptations of his work that they're filmic adaptations of his work? That a comic book should just be a comic book?

    There are problems with the movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen far and away greater than it just being a movie adaptation of a comic. If there had never been a comic the movie would still suck.

    The underlying problem here, specifically, is that while movies do not intrinsically suck by their just being movies, the attitude of the people who make wannabe-blockbusters is that viewers will not appreciate any stories that don't fit into the Generic Action Movie Template.


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