At the time of this writing, I just returned from a stay at my grandmother’s apartment for Christmas. Given her age, it’s unsurprising that she had no internet access, and I have to find other ways of keeping myself busy. That’s where trade paperbacks come in.
For those unaware of how the comic book publishing industry, a trade paperback is where a series of individual comic issues are collected into a book for posterity. The format is also used by graphic novels, which are usually a complete story published in the format from the outset. For the sake of this new column, I’m treating both under the header of “Trades”.
In preparation for my trip, I bought one trade (a graphic novel called I KILL GIANTS), and checked out two trades from the local public library. Not aware that libraries held comic books? Well they do, though naturally in limited numbers. It usually depends on the individual library on what books they have. In this case, they had two I borrowed: THE SIGN OF FOUR, a Sherlock Holmes graphic novel (which I’ll get to later), and THE STORIES OF ALAN MOORE.
Comic writer Alan Moore is probably one of the most important storytellers in comic book history, up there with Jack Kirby and Frank Miller (before his unfortunate Sin City-induced madness). It was his run on the original Swamp Thing series that cemented the character in the imagination of comic readers. And Watchmen, along with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, served to herald the advent of serious respect for comics in the popular consciousness. Needless to say, he’s a potent force in the industry. He’s to comics what Alfred Hitchcock was for horror (in much the same way as Jack Kirby was like Edger Allen Poe and Geoff Johns is like Stephen King).
But in addition to his major works, he also contributed a lot of smaller stories, some as short as three or four pages total. These stories, gems all, are collected in DC UNIVERSE: THE STORIES OF ALAN MOORE. For the sake of brevity, and the nature of the collection, I’ll give a few short words on most of the stories, and what I thought of them.
“For The Man Who Has Everything”: This Superman Annual detailed how space despot Mongol tried to kill Superman on his birthday by way of the Black Mercy, a plant that sucked the life out of an individual while giving them a fantasy of their heart’s desire. It explores the nature of Superman’s backstory and how it affects him in the present, by way of having the two smashed together in an alternate version of history.
This story is fantastic, hence why it was adapted into a stellar episode in the Justice League animated series. We even get a look into Batman’s past while we’re at it, and in a way that doesn’t come off as played out like most such explorations. It takes only a few short panels, but it packs subtle tragic meaning into every frame.
Interesting to note that the Black Mercy would be brought up again in the Green Lantern comics. It’s an origin story that both affirms and redeems the Black Mercy, but for that I suggest reading Green Lantern Corps Vol 2 #25. In fact, speaking of Green Lantern…
“Mogo Doesn’t Socialize”/”Tygers”/”In Blackest Night”: One of the things Geoff Johns did when it came to revamping the Green Lantern mythos (in addition to the retrospectively obvious move of making many different colored lantern corps) was to take many ideas established in Alan Moore’s stories and expand on them. “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” brought us the living planet of the the Green Lantern Corps that would eventually become the cornerstone of the entire corps under Johns’ banner. “Tygers” established the Five Inversions (among them future creator of the Red Lantern Corps), the cause behind the death of GL Abin Sur, and the prophecy that would be realized in the Sinestro Corps War. And while to my knowledge the F-Sharp Bell from “In Blackest Night” had no great significance in the modern GL mythos, the story did set the precedence for, shall we say, unconventional lanterns?
“Night Olympics”: On with the green trend, this Green Arrow story takes a more down-to-Earth perspective, asking what happens when superheroes get so prevalent, that all the petty criminals and thugs become too scared to commit crimes, and only the worst scum and psychos are left. And whether or not it’s worth it to bring out the weirdos, if it means the common thugs are off the streets.
“Father’s Day”/”Mortal Clay”: Both of these stories are told, either wholly or partially, from the perspective of characters that are also both villainous and unreliable narrators. The former deals with child abuse, and raises good points on how the relatively good are quick to deny how possible it is for anyone to do evil, even monstrous evil. The latter puts the reader into the eyes of a mentally ill person, and uses it as a lens for viewing a superhero.
“Brief Lives”/”A Man’s World”: These stories are shorter than other offerings, and unlike most of the other stories in this collection don’t tie to any established property. But they both use what little time given them to tell a simple tale and illustrate the importance of differences between disparate cultures. In “Brief Lives”, a formidable insectoid race is thwarted in their attempts at conquest by the virtue of their targets simply living so slowly as to be unaware of the threat. “A Man’s World” acts as a warning against making assumptions about others based on prior experience, assumptions which can prove dangerous indeed.
“The Jungle Line”/”What Ever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”: More Superman stories. “The Jungle Line”, co-starring Swamp Thing, forces the Man of Steel to encounter a death he can’t fight, and in fact wouldn’t kill him if he just stopped fighting and rested. “What Ever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” likewise faces Superman with certain death for a possible ending to the Superman mythos. It’s also the last great “imaginary story”, before the advent of the “Elseworlds” imprint.
“Footsteps”: Probably the first time an allegory is used right alongside the subject the allegory is used an allegory for. It’s a relatively short origin story for the Phantom Stranger, and uses a split narrative format to illustrate what it’s like to be caught in the middle of a huge conflict, and denied a place on either side because of one’s indecision.
“The Killing Joke”: While the inclusion of the other stories certainly gives this collection merit, on account of all of them being important and well-written in some way, “The Killing Joke” easily sells this volume for me. Or it would, if I hadn’t just borrowed it from the state. It’s not just a fantastic Batman story, but also the definitive Joker stories. If ever one needed to explain the complex relationship between the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime, this story lays it out perfectly.
My only gripe here is that, while a reader would be well served to buy this volume if the other stories also intrigue them, if they simply wanted “The Killing Joke” they’d be better off just buying the separate trade for it. In addition to all the bonus material available in the most recent edition, it’s also been recolored. Originally, artist Brian Bolland was asked to draw the book. But because of schedule restraints, he ran out of time, and had to call in John Higgins to do the coloring. As such, the original version as depicted here doesn’t match the tone of the story as well as the later recolored version as done by Bolland himself.
If “The Killing Joke” is the only thing one wants, one should instead purchase the latest edition of the trade for that book. However, for the artistic purists, or ones who want all of Alan Moore’s works in one purchase, they could hardly go wrong with this trade. It ought to be found at any competent comic book store, or by way of the internet.