Saturday, October 2, 2010

Trade Waiting - Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics Vol. 1

As we approach the end of UK Week, it would be a shame if we didn't talk about one of the institutions of the British and the world's comic book industry. Alan Moore is truly a man that needs no introduction among comic book circles. I am pretty sure that everyone reading these words is at least familiar with his work and has read several of his comics. For better or worse, books written by Moore like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Marvelman have shaped the industry.

Years ago, before he was a legend on his own right, when he was just a promising author, Moore wrote a series of essays in a small magazine about (what else) comics. Almost twenty years later, Avatar Press recollected those essays and released them in a small paperback for readers everywhere.

Written by Alan Moore
Illustrations by Jacen Burrows

This is a relatively small trade, with under fifty pages under it’s belt, but what it lacks in size it makes up in material. As mentioned in the intro, the series of essays was originally published in 1985, before Watchmen had ever come out. In the time since then, Moore has become quite a figure, not only because of his comic work, but because of the lengthy legal battle with DC, and with his increasing distaste and self alienation from the comic book industry.

That’s not the Moore that comes through in these pages: the man writing these words is one that while still experienced enough in the comings and going of the industry, he was still mostly positive in his views of it, or at least not as cynical as he is in his more recent interactions (though there’s certainly hints of it). The book is divided into five chapters, which discuss the overall theory of comics, story telling, world building, and plot, followed by an afterword.

What strikes me the most is that the words of advice that Moore delivers, on the most part don’t specifically work just for comics, but rather as a general road map for any person that wishes to think creatively. Sure, the first chapter is strictly about what unique traits, advantages and setbacks the comic medium has, but the rest of the chapters could just as well be for someone that wants to start a career as a playwright, novelist, etc. The bigger lesson that he wants to impart is to think creatively, to try new things, and to think about what can or can’t be done in the medium.

Moore makes it clearly early on that this is not meant to be a “How To Write Comics: The Alan Moore” way, but rather as a way to get people thinking critically and carefully about how stories should crafted: thinking about themes, transitions, plot, structure and so on. At the time this was written, Moore’s complex scripts and ideas were far from the norm, a time where the comic industry was barely taking the form that we know today. While at the time this must have been quite revolutionary, today’s authors are more likely to approach comic writing in the way Moore describes here. Which is not to say that all of them do it properly or perfectly, but I think that at least the industry has learned a trick or two since 1985.

Throughout the essays, Moore uses examples from his own work to illustrate what he is trying to talk about. The most common subject are his Swamp Thing stories, from which he draws several anecdotes, including a very funny one about how he acted out The Demon to try to figure out his mannerisms and dialogue. There’s also a very extended discussion and deconstruction of how he crafted the now classic Superman Annual “For The Man that Has Everything”. For example, did you know that he originally wanted to use Supergirl for the story, but had to switch her for Wonder Woman after editorial told him that Supergirl would be dying in Crisis on Infinite Earths?

As a whole, the book is an intriguing look into the mind of one of the most influential writers in the comic book industry, and it’s easy to see why and how he got there. The book is rounded up by an afterword, writing by Moore himself as well, but on the year 2003. He reflects back upon his words, and though he agrees that they provide a nice basic set of rules to start, he warns that the bigger problem is creative stagnation. Once you develop a style, Moore says that a writer should try to avoid it at all costs. We go back to what he said earlier: challenging oneself to try better is the heart and future of the comic book creation process. The alternative is an idling and boring industry, and I don’t think anyone wants that.

The one caveat I have about this book are the illustrations by Jacen Burrows. Lovely as they are, they hardly have anything to do with the words contained within the book, only in the most general sense. I think a much better alternative would have been to try to get some of the pages that Moore talks about as illustrations and companion to the essays. I figure that proved to be a challenge, since most of the examples that Moore touches upon are from his time at DC, but I figure there must be a clause somewhere that allows for partial usage for cases like these, which I would consider to be educational essays.

Verdict - Must Read. Whether you agree or disagree with what Moore has to say, Writing For Comics provides plenty of food for thought about the way comics should be crafted. It’s also a very introspective look at Moore’s creative process circa 1985. Additionally, this book is a must for anyone that wishes to embark in a career in the comic book, or any other, creative industry. 

Interested in getting a copy of Alan Moore's Writing For Comics? Purchase it through Amazon and help support The Weekly Crisis. 

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Ivan said...

I'm getting this and Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Arts" in the near future.

Steven said...

If it was a magazine article about Moore or a review some sample panels, in context, could be freely used. You can use such thing in an editorial way like that because the magazine is a finite entity. Published only for a limited time. They couldn't reprint the art in a collected book of article because they would have to ask for and pay for permission.

A book is published indefinitely and solely for profit. A magazine article that used art could simply be reprinted in a book collection with the art. The fact that the essau may be considered, by some, to somehow be educational, means nothing. Scholastic Pubslishing would have to pay to publish panels from Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel in a book, Comics Journal or Wizard would not.

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