Moore and a New Tomorrow

Writer Alan Moore has become something of a legend in the field of comic books. The first work for which he garnered massive critical acclaim was V for Vendetta in 1982-83, a startling take on an alternative, fascist Britain which he completed with artist David Lloyd and for which he received the British Eagle Award for best comics writer twice. It was followed by two major successes: the first was Watchmen, in 1986 and 1987, art by Dave Gibbons, which was admired for its intricate plot and style, but mostly for its incredible, compassionate treatment of Golden Age-style comic heroes. The second was From Hell, another limited series concentrating on the Jack the Ripper killings and proposing a new theory as to the identity of the killer, illustrated by Eddie Campbell and published irregularly over several years in the early nineties. The incredible amount of historical research and detal present in the work is staggering. Now, Moore is challenging his audience again, partly by sheer volume of work. He currently has his own subsection of DC Comics, called America's Best Comics, and he writes, simultaneously, every script for each of its five or six monthly titles.

One of these titles is Tomorrow Stories, an anthology-style series that contains in every issue four different stories about four different characters, each drawn by a different artist. The characters, for the most part, stay constant from issue to issue, and have very little in common (although two of them do live in the same fictional city, they have not, as yet, crossed paths). In fact, possibly the only thing that all of them share is a basic two-dimensionality. While Moore certainly has proven himself of creating characters with depth in other works, the Tomorrow Stories set seems at first to be confusingly shallow. Upon comparison between issues, however, the reason becomes clear: the characters and plots of the stories in Tomorrow Stories are pretexts for discussion of other matters. The First American and U.S. Angel are the media for critiques of American culture, Jack B. Quick toys with impossible applications of science, Cobweb is an exploration of historical stylistic formats of comics - albeit an exploration mostly in soft porn - Splash Brannigan pokes fun at art, and Greyshirt, a hero who hardly appears at all in what are purportedly his adventures, serves as a medium to investigate different types of story narrative.

All of these are worthy of exposition, but it is the Greyshirt comics, more than any other, that point towards Moore's new and revolutionary use of the comic book's visual medium. A trend towards new spatial arrangements has been present in some of his moore recent work - an entire issue of Promethea reads sideways, for example, in an attempt to evoke the sense of a wide-screen movie. But it is in Tomorrow Stories' second issue, with the Greyshirt story, "How Things Work Out," that Moore has presented what may be the most challenging use of comics' visual space.

It should be noted that Moore is a writer, not an artist. Rick Veitch is the artist who interprets Greyshirt, and his work in both comic art and writing is not inconsiderable. Called once "Will Eisner on acid," his angry exit from DC Comics after their refusal to print his Swamp Thing #88 is still of some notoriety in the industry, and his recent work on Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend has brought him back into the critical spotlight. Veitch designs characters and scenes that Moore describes, and the skill he brings to the series is what brings it alive. Moore, however, is notorious for demanding creative control in his projects, and the layout, appearance, and ideas behind a comic are essentially his. He has been known to spend numerous typewritten pages instructing artists on how a single panel should look. When Moore writes a comic book, he writes a comic book, and the visual presentation of Greyshirt is largely his creation.

In Tomorrow Stories #2, even the cover of the book and title of the Greyshirt piece, "How Things Work Out," hint at the complexity of the story. The cover reads: "Four Floors of Fear in Alan Moore's Tomorrow Stories," describing both the content of the entire comic - four different stories - as well as the layout of the featured story: four panels a page, each representing a different floor in the same building. The words themselves are represented as being painted on a window; a close look at the cover reveals that a shadow of the words is projected onto a door pictured behind the window (see page 1 of Appendix). This is already a challenge to conventional use of space, an element traditionally outside the story - the title - taking up physical space within the story. The title of the Greyshirt offering is prophetic: a close reading becomes a study of the connections between panels and the advancement of the story through time and space, a journey in discovering just "How Things Work Out."

The plot of the story itself, if told linearly, is less than exceptional even in the sort of pulp-era comics that Moore and Veitch regularly try to evoke. The hero, Greyshirt, has found out about the evil schemes of the villain, Spats Katz, and has in turn been discovered in his investigations. He is tied up on the top floor of Katz' building, where Katz issues orders for one of his henchmen to teach Greyshirt a thing or two, while his moll watches. Eventually, Katz' mistreated handyman, Sonny, revolts, killing Katz and saving Greyshirt. Most of the comic is spent in detailing the events during Sonny's life, from childhood, that lead up to his final heroic action.

The revolutionary part of the comic lies in its visual composition. On the first page (see page 2 of Appendix), we are presented with a building divided horizontally into four floors, bottom to top. Each floor is assigned a date: the bottom floor is 1939, the second floor 1959, the third floor 1979, and the fourth, top floor takes place in 1999, the year in which the comic itself was published. The rest of the comic follows this pattern, the action on each floor taking place in the initial year stated on the front page. Each panel belongs, sylistically, to two groups: the column, or page, that it appears on, and the row, or time frame, that it belongs in.

There are both obvious and subtle links between panels which occupy the same year. Each panel logically, linearly follows the one that occurs on the page before it on the same "floor." The characters have linear conversations and relationships, and each floor contains a very short eight-page story in isolation. Each panel is differentiated from the ones above and below it in some subtle ways, however. Each year has its own distinct style of lettering for the dialogue, which remains consistent throughout. Also, upon comparison of different panels, it is easy to see the ways in which the building is shown to be aging and to belong to different eras. On the front page alone, an examination of the bricks that compose the building and the marquee reading "Greyshirt" show the time differences from panel to panel.

The connections between panels located within a column are much more complex and impressive; they cannot depend upon a linear pattern and so must use other venues to establish a link. This is done partly through dialogue - each panel contains words that relate somehow to the panels just above and below it (see highlighting on page 3 of Appendix for an illustration). This includes connections from page to page; each panel on the bottom of a page is related, dialogue-wise, to the one on the top of the next page. Another means of linking the panels in a column is spatially. On the first page, it is easy to see that we are looking at the front door of a building and watching from a single vantage point the occurrences happening in the front portion of the building over a period of sixty years, as if we stood on the street corner opposite and pointed a sort of time-telescope at each floor. Upon closer observation, this geographical linkage can be found throughout all eight pages of the story. Each horizontal reading is a journey from the front to the back of the building, and each vertical column takes place in the same geographical space as the one above or below it, although on a different floor. The second page is a side view of all the front rooms and the lobby, the third page shows us the staircase on each floor, etc. Similarly, each panel contains the same arrangement of figures as one alove or below it. Pages five and six, in the fourth part of the Appendix, are good examples - each panel on page five contains a character very close to us in the right foreground, and a tableau of other characters in the left in the background, framed by a doorway. Page six contains much the same, in reverse - in each panel, there is a character in the far left foreground, and another character or characters in the right background (except in the second panel from the top, where a stack of word ballons fills the space that would be occupied by a character).

Where does all this intricacy leave us? One possible option is in the capable hands of Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, a history about and guide to comic books that is itself largely a comic book. McCloud lists six types of panel-to-panel transitions: moment-to-moment, which involves only a small change betwen scenes shown; action-to-action, which shows a single subject in a progression of cause and effects; subject-to-subject, which shows two different items within a single scene, such as switching back and forth between two individuals having a conversation; scene-to-scene, which moves across significant distances of time and space; aspect-to-aspect, which shows different parts of a scene without allowing time to pass between panels; and non-sequitor, which "offers no logical relationship between panels whatsoever"(McCloud 72). These transitions are listed according to the degree of difficulty in associating one panel with the next. Each transition, from moment-to-moment to non-sequitor, demands a greater level of closure to be provided by the audience, and is therefore of a slightly more "difficult" degree to read.

The transitions between panels located in a horizontal row in "How Things Work Out" are almost all action-to-action: in 1939, the characters walk in the front door, towards the staircase, linger there for a while, and then walk out the back. We stay with one subject, or group of subjects, throughout. There is an exception in the second and third 1959 panels, which have a subject-to-subject transition between Sonny and his father and Katz and his henchmen, but the transition is eased by the insertion of an ellipsis in the father's speech in both panels, and the presence of word balloons from Sonny and his father make it closer to a subject-to-subject move. The transitions between vertical columns of panels, however, are scene-to-scene; each step up or down takes us a floor and twenty years away from where we were. They are more difficult transitions to make, and require deductive reasoning on a level not demanded by the horizontal transitions.

This is not the only complication, however. As McCloud points out, comics are users and extensions of language. As such, we "read" comics, regardless of the presence or absence of text, just as we read books, left to right and top to bottom. We assume that everything on the right occurs after everything on the left, and that everything on the bottom occurs after everything that occurs on the top. To arrange things otherwise is to encourage a reader to read in new directions, so that events happen in their accustomed, sequential way (see Appendix page 10 for an illustration). Moore, however, clearly intends for us to read top-to-bottom, in reverse sequential order; the last page of the 1939 story contains the nearly universal marker: "The End."

Consequently, in order for us to follow the plot as intended, Moore must work against two intuitive readings. One is our tendency to seek out simpler transitions by reading all of the panels within a time sequence rather than across several time sequences. Another is our wish to read things in a forward rather than a backward chain of events. Moore's linkage of each panel with the ones that appear just before or after it in vertical sequence is more than a stylistic conceit; it is a necessity if we are to follow the plot in the way he wishes us to. Even as each year remains obviously distinct from the next, with the progressing ages of the characters and building and the individualized lettering, the visual arrangement of the tableaus and the connecting language of the dialogue discourage us from reading in any other way but top-to-bottom. The linking dialogue on the very first page, instead of matching words in the next panel, tries to more forcefully direct us by pointing to the entire scene that occurs next and the overall journey through time: "I was always there for him," "You're as generous as ever," "When we moved in."

"How Things Work Out" is not a story that could have been told like this in any other medium. The visual component of the arrangement and appearances of the characters is far too important for the story to be expressed entirely in words, and the simultaneity of the images on the paper would simply be confusing if presented in film. In presenting the story, Moore takes advantage of multiple traditions and techniques available to him through use of the comic book: the ability to present differences in time visually, the ability to present images simultaneously in order to allow for reader input and closure, our tendency to read top-to-bottom in comics, and even usurping the pulp detective comics of the gangster vs. mysterious investigator theme. At the same time, he challenges and moves past these traditions, forcing us to read against intuition by presenting a plot that jumps from era to era and a time scheme that runs backwards, setting up stylistic elements that prevent a reader from reaching his or her own approach to the presentation, and almost wholly excluding the detective-hero from his own story. There has been some alarm recently about the supposed death of the comic book, concerns about the willingess of an audience to continue to buy something as simple and disposable as comics, and a movement to reformat the genre to make it more appropriate for online publication. All these packaging innovations may be what could keep the industry going, but it is innovations like Moore's that guarantee that there can be something worthwhile left to preserve. The concurrent challenges to and reestablishment of the format that he and others engage in are what prevent comics from being a disposable art form.

Works Cited

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Paradox Press, 1999.

Moore, Alan and Jack Veitch. "How Things Work Out." Tomorrow Stories @2. First Printing. America's Best Comics, November 1999.

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