Once portrayed as a figure that offered hope to despairing humanity

Once portrayed as a figure that offered hope to despairing humanity, the superhero has undergone many revisions and the superhero genre has been modernised to match changing audiences and cultures. Alan Moore radically revised superheroes and adopted a revisionist approach to the superhero genre which was successful and is still influential today. His deconstruction of the superhero figure and his placement of the superhero in the real world has become a major part of the comics medium with the psychological depths of characters being explored further than they had been in the past.
Revisionism refers to the movement in comics (typified by the mid – ’80s works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller) which popularised stories that attempted to represent superheroes realistically, cynically or with mature artistic sensibility. Whereas superheroes were once used to offer hope and a solution to despairing humanity, the 1980s brought with it more mature comics with various new superheroes as well as revamped old ones who had become a lot more psychologically complex and the aspect of morality within the genre had become blurred. Typical superhero tropes still existed but their revisions had become inverted, questioned and parodied by the writers. Superheroes had evolved from the All-American boy fantasy to multidimensional characters who clearly reflected the dreams and fears of modern society such as the threat of nuclear destruction, terrorism and the politics of the time.
As well as revisionism offering a new approach to super-heroes, it was also used to expand the dynamics of the comic medium by approaching both the form and subjects of comics in an innovative way. Frank Millar’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen were central comics in the revisionist movement by providing a depiction of the superhero in a social context as well as experimenting with the medium itself. The work of Moore and Millar in the superhero genre is explained by Moore himself who states:
‘they had to some degree deemed the mainstream comics medium to a parade of violent, depressing postmodern superheroes, a lot of whom in addition to these other faults are incredibly pretentious.’
In his introduction to Millar’s The Dark Knight Returns, Moore gives an insight into the revisionary movement that he would also participate in by noting:
‘he has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character’s mythology…’
Millar placed Batman in a realistic setting in The Dark Knight Returns examining the inability of society to accept such a hero and the comic can be viewed as a condemnation of the modern, reified society. The realism of his setting within the comic as well as his consideration of society’s response to the hero is something that is mirrored and expanded on in the work of Moore.
However, as Geoff Klock notes:
‘Moore’s realism does not ennoble and empower his characters as Miller’s does for Batman. Rather, it sends a wave of disruption back through superhero history by asking, for example, what would make a person dress up in costume and fight crime?’
Moore’s comics introduced a new world where classic superheroes were replaced with vigilantes who would at times act with violence and terrorist tactics and no longer followed a set moral code. His work also at times evoked nostalgia for a past age whilst simultaneously ridiculing it as a means of questioning and depicting the placement of such characters in a modern, realistic setting. His deconstruction of not only the superhero but the mechanics of the genre allowed an insight into how both character and genre work and how they could be differently recreated. This revisionist approach allowed him to question the meaning of the genre through the critical revelation of its ideological contradictions.
The political climate of Britain in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s government also influenced the work of Moore with his work strongly orientated with right wing politics. His graphic novel V for Vendetta examines the anarchist vigilante, V, as he fights against a fascist government. On first sight, the graphic novel seems far removed from the typical superhero genre, but Moore takes many of the traditional superhero tropes and adapts these in an unconventional way. The mask and cape that would typically mark the secondary identity of the superhero becomes a permanent part of V’s anonymity. Instead of fighting against an antihero or supervillain, V’s fight is against the oppressive government and he resorts to violence and terrorist tactics that cause the reader to question his morality. The pitting of an anarchist hero against fascist state, as two absolute political and moral extremes, corresponds neatly to the dualism of classic superhero narratives. The content of the text is more mature focusing on subject matters such as rape, fascism and prostitution. The realistic dystopian setting provides a context of constant surveillance and a fear of terrorism which could have indeed been an alternative future for Britain.
Moore also uses V as a figure that causes both the society within the text and the readers of the text to question their surroundings and to warn of the dangers of being idle as well as the danger of excessive power. The complexity of his scripts demands a greater awareness from the reader than was typical in the superhero genre. The text is filled with literary references such as the first lines V speaks which are quotes from Macbeth which are not identified, and such references are part of what makes the graphic novel so innovative. Moore is providing the comic medium with a more literary varied and political world than was typical in mainstream comics where the superhero’s focus was to save the world from a figure of evil not awaken it to the subtler corruption of the world.
Similarly, Moore’s treatment of vigilantes in Watchmen is one of his most innovative aspects which provides not only the placement of a masked figure in a realistic setting but also draws on the fears of the modern world. Watchmen causes the reader to question the morals and ideals which superheroes represent by presenting characters who are as morally troubling as the villains. The comic is driven by the contrasting views of its superhero characters who each offer a different perspective on the world as well as provide an insight into the motivations behind the desire to become a vigilante.
Watchmen deconstructs not only the superhero characters of the past but the clichés, forms and influences of the medium, providing an insight into how both the genre and the comic medium itself work. The lack of external narrative voice in captions and thought-balloons meant that the story was told primarily through both the dialogue and the images. This meant that both the character’s thoughts and motivations were left ambiguous, an aspect which Moore had also experimented with in V for Vendetta. This allowed readers to form their own opinions of characters and also demanded greater reader attention than most superhero comics of the time. Alongside the lack of sound effects, it also gave the comic a more sophisticated outlook and further emphasised the realism of the comic.
Moore was also keen to focus on the things where comics have an advantage over prose and film, techniques that are unique to comics. Watchmen follows a typical murder mystery structure which breaks from the typical superhero conventions and allows both a visual and literary representation of clues throughout whilst also giving the reader the freedom to focus on these for as long as they desire. Watchmen and V for Vendetta both explored various formalist techniques such as the a direct correlation between the final panel of one scene and the first panel of the next or the dialogue of a single panel and the image providing an insight into two separate ideas. These elements alongside the flashback structure and recurrent symbolism, present an image of both the real and fictional universe as a mechanism which presents Watchmen not just as a deconstruction of the superhero genre but of both the medium and form of comics itself.
Additionally, at the core of Watchmen is an examination of the superhero manifest within society which is highlighted through both the personal and moral struggles of the characters. Iain Thompson in his essay states that ‘Watchmen develops its heroes precisely in order to ask us if we would not in fact be better off without heroes.’ The comic uses its characters to explore how civilisation would react to superheroes as well as examining what these superheroes would do with the power they have. Most of his characters use their status for personal gain and power and have a disregard for humanity which seems more realistic than the superheroes of the past who had only desired to save it. The character Dr Manhattan is the only character who possesses real superpowers, yet this leads to him feeling isolated from humanity as he cannot connect with it. The reasoning behind the vigilantes’ desire to become masked is explored through flashbacks such as that of the character Rorschach who suffered neglect and abuse throughout his life which led him to creating another identity where he could use violence and his own sense of right and wrong to fight crime. He mirrors a society that is far from perfect, that is complicated and at times corrupt. The in-depth exploration of Moore’s characters caused them to become more multidimensional than was typical of characters in the superhero genre which also made them more realistic.
The threats of the Cold War and nuclear destruction also linger throughout the comic which allows it to draw on real concerns of the modern world. Richard Reynolds states:
‘that without any supervillains in the story, the superheroes of Watchmen are forced to confront more intangible social and moral concerns which removes the superhero concept from the normal narrative expectations of the genre.’
Moore’s placement of his vigilantes in a modern time where concerns mirrored those of a modern world allowed him to show how advanced the comic medium could be. His presentation of characters who are not solely good or evil highlights the moral complexity that would define them in such a morally compromising world. He shows through his characters and text that there is a thin line between good and evil and a larger grey area than what was previously presented in the comic medium.
Furthermore, Moore’s revisionist approach also includes taking the history of a well-known character within the superhero genre and using it to evoke nostalgia for a past age as well as deconstruct the superhero. His take on a finale to the mainstream Superman comics in Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow which builds on the history of Superman but explores more dark and violent themes as well as Superman’s desire to live a normal life as he takes his last stand.
The story begins with the introduction, ‘This is an imaginary story about a perfect man who came down from the sky and did only good.’ ‘Imaginary story’ emphasises the unrealistic concept of any man, superhero or not, being perfect and the naivety of the Golden Age. The comic shows the modern world after the apparent death of Superman as a place that has moved on and no longer has a need for a saviour. This is also highlighted through the disguised figure of Clark Kent who adds to this by stating ‘Superman? He was overrated and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get along without him.’
Superman is deconstructed by the challenging of his virtual invulnerability that is shown through his characterisation in past comics. A full page is dedicated to an image of Superman crying which makes him appear more human than godlike and explores the emotional aspects of his character as well as showing his acknowledgment and fear of death and helplessness in preventing the death of all of his friends. Moore takes the familiar villains and heroes of the past comics and places them in a more violent setting which evokes nostalgia for the Golden Age as the innocence of the characters is lost. Moore explores the burden of Superman/Kent faces with his superpowers which leads to a desire to be normal as it greatly impacts the emotional state of the character. He also uses the revelation of Superman’s identity, to mock the absurdity of the old comics. This is shown through the scene where action Superman figures reveal his identity by stating, ‘It was him all the time! He just combed his hair and stuck on a pair of glasses! What a great gag!’ This emphasises how out of place superheroes of the past ages would be in the postmodern world and how both the characters and conventions of the superhero genre in the past are far removed from those of the new world.
As well as exploring the burden that superpowers would have on the superhero, Moore also explores the concept of superpowers leading to a divide between civilisation and the god-like figure of the superhero. Moore’s Miracleman exposes the boundaries of the superhero genre by having content aimed for adults, mocking the old superhero tropes and delving into the psyches of its principal characters. The character of Marvelman was created by Mick Anglo in 1953 and the heroic and idealistic attitude of the character fitted in with the era of that time. Moore deconstructs the character of Marvelman, now Miracleman, to highlight the struggle of the character to fit into a world that is not accepting or prepared for him like the character of Dr Manhattan from Watchmen. The comic delves into the impact of superhuman qualities on the character’s psychological state as well as showing the negative impact such a figure could have in the real world as they may try to destroy it.
Moore found innovative ways to allow the past to remain a part of his re-imagined stories. In Act 1: A Dream of Flying, Moore takes the adventures of Marvelman in the 1950s and reveals them to be dreams created by virtual reality. He insinuates that the Golden Age comics and the stories produced within that era held no place in modern reality and followed the logic of dreams. His work can be viewed as a satire of the naivety of that age whilst also evoking nostalgia for a time of innocence that is completely lost by the end of the comic. The characters reflect back on how innocent the black and white world of Mick Anglo’s was which is juxtaposed against the brutal reality of the world Moore has created. The use of nudity and violent themes in the comic also highlight that this version of the comic is far removed from the Mick Anglo’s Marvelman of the past.
The loss of innocence is a prime theme throughout with the struggle of the superhero to fit into with society is an aspect that would also parade Moore’s other texts. The conflict between the dual identity of god and man is also a recurrent theme with even Miracleman’s wife, Liz, initially preferring the god-like version over the human version of her husband. When telling her of his past, she laughs which reinforces the attitude of that era that there is no place for superheroes and she deconstructs the entire superhero genre by mocking the absurdity of the Marvelman of the past age. The idea of a god separated from the world is also central in this comic as the plot progresses, with Miracleman gradually isolating himself from the affairs of human beings and eventually his own wife. There is attention to the effects such superheroes would have on the actual city and public such as can be seen through the dramatic transformation of the character of Marvelkid who wreaks havoc in the modern world causing civilians to fear for their lives. Through these themes, Moore clearly establishes that he is writing for more mature audiences and that the superhero genre is no longer solely aimed at a young generation.
In conclusion, a revisionist approach to the superhero genre lies behind the success of Alan Moore in the 1980s. His exploration of mature themes, deconstruction of superheroes and the superhero genre, introduction of vigilantes into the real world and his examination of how the superhero would fare in a modern world as well as the psychological impact this would have on them are all innovative aspects which added to his success. He expanded both the conventions of the superhero genre and the comic medium as a whole to show how the medium could be reconstructed and manipulated to reflect on a postmodern society as well as questions what superheroes would be like if they actually existed.