When Jack the Ripper Met Pollyanna 

Alan Moore's comics from hell.

Alan Moore reimagined the comic book with Watchmen, his 1986 graphic novel about aging superheroes in a paranoid world on the brink of nuclear war. His caped crusaders were not just crimefighters but also flawed human beings. The Comedian was fearless, but also swaggering and murderous. Dr. Manhattan was invulnerable, yet cold and emotionally unapproachable. And Rorschach, Watchmen's antihero protagonist, was twice as creepy and sociopathic as he was dogged and resourceful. By making his characters satisfyingly complex, Moore injected new life into a once-tired genre.

Moore is most famous for his ambivalent reinvention of masked adventurers, but he deserves to be known for much more. In a genre known primarily for its images, he is a writer and storyteller of great accomplishment. In works as varied as Watchmen, Swamp Thing, and V for Vendetta, Moore revitalized comic books' potential by fashioning complex stories out of deft fiction, dizzying allusions, and dazzling artwork. A typical page in one of his more mature works weaves as many as three concurrent plotlines and maybe even the words of Bob Dylan or William Shakespeare into a single narrative arc. And Moore placed the story itself at the center of his works by killing off these franchises whenever the time was right for him and his readers to move on.

In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -- the latest of his fictional worlds to be reinterpreted on film -- the author slyly places his work in its proper context. Moore weaves a tale around a handful of characters created by his Victorian forefathers: Bram Stoker, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others. Its literary allusions are so numerous that one enchanted fan, a librarian, has compiled a companion volume cataloguing all references to the likes of Pollyanna, Fu Manchu, Henry James, Victorian pornography, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Decoding the characters' origins is just part of the fun of this ongoing serial, which is periodically collected into book form in the manner of Moore's earlier comics.

Although Moore scrupulously credits his many collaborating illustrators, pencilers, inkers, colorists, letterers, and layout artists, the writer himself plays a major role in the artwork. He evidently provides them with richly detailed instructions that describe not just the desired action but also the facial expressions, overall mood, even angle of view. The resulting images can be breathtakingly innovative. In Watchmen, as Moore's imaginary camera lens panned from macro to wide angle, it revealed subtle juxtapositions as integral to the story as the words themselves. In League, all moody blues and browns and grays, the use of color invokes the repressive Victorian temperament and helps set the foreboding mood.

But nothing has characterized the Englishman's work better than his legendarily bleak worldview. Brought to Light, now available only as an audio CD, was an ill-fated collaboration with the Christic Institute that tabulated some of the CIA's less heroic moments. Voice of the Fire, Moore's one conventional novel, chronicled historical atrocities across six millennia in his home region, Northampton. And 1998's From Hell, the inspiration for the movie of the same name, was a fictional account of Jack the Ripper.

Following From Hell's decade-long gestation period -- which the author once described as "a long journey through some very dark territory" -- Moore launched his own publishing house in 1999 and entered a pop phase. Pop, that is, if League's depictions of opium addiction, rape at a girls' reformatory, and the exploits of Dr. Jekyll's infamous doppelgänger are understood to be lighter than most of his earlier fare.

Moore's most recent releases are perhaps his lightest work yet. In Supreme: The Story of the Year, and Supreme: The Return, he was hired by another publisher to reconceptualize a lame superhero. The publisher apparently ran out of money before Moore finished, but the first two-thirds of Moore's story was subsequently reissued by Checker. That Supreme is less interesting than almost anything else Moore has produced is a testament to the richness of his output. Although it lacks the underlying social context that deepens most of his other work, it nevertheless is a loving, conventional homage to works as disparate as DC and Marvel Comics, Classics Illustrated, and even Li'l Abner. Supreme is the work of a positively sunny Alan Moore -- well-suited to those too young to miss the darker backstory, or those so old they appreciate the work's archeological-grade tribute to the comics of yore.

Far more satisfying is another one of Moore's current projects, Top 10. It's an almost comedic serial about a police precinct on a planet in which everyone -- cops, robbers, victims, even their lawyers -- is some kind of masked adventurer. Moore has once again reimagined the pop-cultural terrain of the superhero, choreographing a lighthearted but thoroughly enjoyable romp that is one-third Justice League, one-third Hill Street Blues, and one-third Star Wars cantina. One story somberly depicts the deaths of three innocent people in a futuristic car crash, while another humorously juxtaposes the worlds of Norse gods and Miranda warnings:

Norse god #1: "Vile Braggart! You shall be chained upon a rock for an eternity! A serpent shall drip scalding venom on your breast. ..."

Norse god #2: "Uh .... Excuse me? I don't think so! I mean, this isn't the butt-end of some fjord. This is America. I got rights. Ask the officer."

The suddenly prolific Moore also is the force behind titles as diverse as the mystical journeys of Promethea, the youth-oriented adventure tales of Tom Strong and Tesla Strong, and the eagerly awaited conclusion of Lost Girls, a long-delayed "pornography" involving Alice in Wonderland's Alice, The Wizard of Oz' Dorothy, and Peter Pan's Wendy. But if you're interested, don't dally. Rumor has it that the reclusive Moore may soon kill them all off and move on once again.


GOOD TO GO

What you should be buying next month.

1. At Work: The Art of California Labor, edited by Mark Dean Johnson (Heyday, $35). Photographs, posters, paintings, cartoons, and murals by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, and Claude Clark illustrate this colorful seventy-year history of pickers, welders, shipbuilders, bridge-builders, and millions more who, of course, remain nameless.

2. The Sound and the Fury: 40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism, edited by Barney Hoskyns (Bloomsbury, $14.95). This paperback original kicks out the jams with reprinted pieces including Will Self interviewing Morrissey, Nick Hornby reassessing ABBA, and Robert Gordon asking Ice Cube what he meant by the lyric, "True niggas aren't gay."

3. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, by Ruth Rendell (Vintage, $13). What became of the sleazy two-timer who robbed his girlfriends blind for years before turning up stabbed to death in a movie theater? This enticing crime saga by a veteran master of character development has enough possible suspects to ... well, to fill a movie theater.

4. Strange Mr. Satie, by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Petra Mathers (Viking, $16.99). How better to help children appreciate classical music than with this jewel-toned picture book recounting the weird life of the Parisian composer who ate only white foods, composed music for magical spells, and "bathed" by scraping his body with a stone?

5. Dragonflies and Damselflies of California, by Tim Manolis (University of California, $16.95). In our creek- and lake-riven region, these stealth missiles of the insect world provide free entertainment while the sun shines. This handbook shows how to tell a Blue-Eyed Darner from a Vivid Dancer from an Exclamation Damsel -- 108 species in all.

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