Alan Moore and Superfolks
November 18, 2012 1:22 PM   Subscribe

In 1977 Dial Press of New York published Robert Mayer’s first novel, Superfolks. It was, amongst other things, a story of a middle-aged man coming to terms with his life, an enormous collection of 1970s pop-culture references, some now lost to the mists of time, and a satire on certain aspects of the comic superhero, but would probably be largely unheard of these days if it wasn’t for the fact that it is regularly mentioned for its supposed influence on a young Alan Moore and his work, particularly on Watchmen, Marvelman, and his Superman story, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Alan Moore and Superfolks: Part 1: The Case for the Prosecution, Part 2: The Case for the Defence, Part 3: The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.
posted by Artw (37 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, and it's the bearded one's birthday today!

Happy birthday! I posted this exhaustive record of several disses and an undignified spat with a fellow comics wizard to celebrate! HAIL SOCKO!
posted by Artw at 2:38 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Beneath his beard in Northampton, bitchy Alan Moore lies seething . . .
posted by KingEdRa at 2:47 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Beneath the beard... ANOTHER BEARD!

/further examination halted by toxic levels of atmospheric THC.
posted by Artw at 2:49 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Alan Moore is basically Walter Bishop at this point, yes?
posted by The Whelk at 2:55 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I basically have Alan Moore's accent if you shift it a bit further East to remove the Brummie twang... but I think you need the full beard to give the correct bass rumble undertones.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:57 PM on November 18, 2012


Beardie Weirdie vs Baldy Wanker
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:59 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's disappointing how often their personalities and this 20 year old spat overshadow their work.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 3:08 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I read Superfolks within the last year or so, and all the way through, I was picking out things that have been stolen by pretty much every deconstructionist superhero writer of the last generation or so, because honestly, there are a lot of notes to hit, and none of them are so magical that anyone can claim ownership of them. Mayer wasn't the first guy to think of "Middle-aged Superman," nor "Wacky villains going super-dark," and especially not "Sexualized teen heroes."

And frankly, Alan Moore did it better. Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis are doing it better. Mark Millar has his moments where he does it better. Mark Waid did it better (but even better when Alex Ross was helping (and hit a lot of the same notes (for instance, what is it with the Captain Marvel obsession among comics writers?))). Neil Gaiman did it better, but only when he wasn't really doing it to superheroes. Hell, John Byrne did it better, and typing that gives me a psychic itch.

Don't get me wrong -- Superfolks was damn amusing. I encourage any fan of the form to read it (with the caveat that it is very dated and of its time). But it's not the wellspring of superhero parody/deconstructionism that some people give it credit for being.
posted by Etrigan at 3:10 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


They have to be rivals cause if they teamed up they would basically end reality as we know it.
posted by The Whelk at 3:11 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or it would be Jagger and Bowie all over again.
posted by Artw at 3:13 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


tl;dr: Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

It's good to document the influences and inspirations that guide an artist, whether he's guided knowingly or not, but if he's able to take the useful bits of lesser material and make greater things with them, I'm not sure how bad a thing that is. And I say this thinking that the second article, meant to defend Moore by accounting for influences beyond Mayer's novel, overreaches and is the weakest of the three articles.
posted by ardgedee at 3:16 PM on November 18, 2012


Super Folks is interesting and important.

By the same token, Joseph Torchia's The Kryptonite Kid (1979) treads similar waters and finds (to me) a lot more beauty and heartbreak.
posted by grabbingsand at 3:27 PM on November 18, 2012


As it happens, I own Superfolks, and bought it specifically to see if there was anything to the charges that Alan Moore owes Robert Mayer any sort of credit, or more, for much of his early work (and more than a bit of the later stuff, too). I'm a big Alan Moore fan, but I'm not afraid to kick my idols to the curb if they're proven to be bad, which is why I stopped defending Lance Armstrong recently.

Imagine my relief when I acquired Superfolks, and read it--or tried to, anyway--and found that, although it did have a great deal of similarities with much of Moore's work in terms of individual plot points, it had none of the charm, depth or sophistication of Moore's comics. It's a work seemingly compiled by someone with severe cases of both ADHD and OCD, determined to cram in every mad idea he had about superheroes and 1970s culture and politics into the book, but then doesn't really do anything interesting with them once they're in. I think that I stopped reading when he has Bella Abzug driving a cab in one scene, for no apparent reason other than, like one of those old Mad Magazine parodies where there has to be a joke or at least a celebrity cameo in every single panel, he put her in there because there couldn't just be a plain old cab driver, it had to be Abzug or someone else that your average newspaper reader (assuming a decently-sized-city newspaper) would recognize. And that sort of obsessive in-jokey marginalia can work (see, for example, Moore's Top 10) if it's kept to the margins. But what works on an actual comics page doesn't really work in a linear narrative, and sticking all these cameos in the narrative is distracting; there may be a way to do it in prose that doesn't distract from the flow of the story, but Mayer doesn't have it.

Another critique of the story is in how Mayer and Moore handle similar incidents. [Spoilers ahoy] They both bring up the case of Kitty Genovese, but use it in very different ways. Moore, you'll remember, has young Walter Kovacs, who works in the garment industry (even though he doesn't like handling women's clothing) keep a dress which Genovese ordered; after she's murdered, he makes his mask out of her dress because, disgusted by humanity (and by extension, himself) he wants a face that he can look at in the mirror. Mayer has his Superman expy ignore Genovese's murder (which he can hear with his super-hearing) because, brace yourselves, he's getting a handjob from his girlfriend and doesn't want to be interrupted. Which, if you think these things through for more than about three seconds, brings up the question: why is this the first time that it's been a problem for this guy? He lives in New York City. Moore addressed the incident because it gave Rorschach his motivation, and also reflected on the character's misogyny. Mayer put it in because he put everything that he could think of in.

It seems that pretty much everyone who has made a living writing has had the experience of someone either asking them where they get their ideas, or coming to them with an idea for a story/comic/screenplay and offered to let the writer turn it into a story in exchange for 50% (or more) of the proceeds. These anecdotes are usually delivered by way of explaining that ideas are less than a dime a dozen, and writing a story is the much harder part of the job than coming up with something to write about. Whether or not Kurt Busiek really thinks that Superfolks is that good (and you have to wonder; he is the Nicest Man in Comics, after all, and simply may have been moved to say something nice about it by someone asking him to), Moore is several orders of magnitude a better writer than Mayer, even in his earliest work, and has done much more with these ideas than Mayer seems capable of doing. And it's not as if Morrison doesn't lift ideas from other sources himself, although he may (briefly) acknowledge where he gets them from. (He's done interviews in which he accuses the Wachowskis of stealing the ideas for The Matrix from The Invisibles, without acknowledging--in that interview, at least--the multiple sources that he derived his work from (Shea and Wilson's Illuminati trilogy, Philip K. Dick, Star Wars, etc.))
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:46 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Another critique of the story is in how Mayer and Moore handle similar incidents. [Spoilers ahoy] They both bring up the case of Kitty Genovese, but use it in very different ways. Moore, you'll remember, has young Walter Kovacs, who works in the garment industry (even though he doesn't like handling women's clothing) keep a dress which Genovese ordered; after she's murdered, he makes his mask out of her dress because, disgusted by humanity (and by extension, himself) he wants a face that he can look at in the mirror. Mayer has his Superman expy ignore Genovese's murder (which he can hear with his super-hearing) because, brace yourselves, he's getting a handjob from his girlfriend and doesn't want to be interrupted. Which, if you think these things through for more than about three seconds, brings up the question: why is this the first time that it's been a problem for this guy? He lives in New York City. Moore addressed the incident because it gave Rorschach his motivation, and also reflected on the character's misogyny. Mayer put it in because he put everything that he could think of in.

Heh. If you told me that it was some modern comics writer (Millar in particular being in the frame here) I'd totally be ranting about how though Watchmen had been imitated many of it's imitators totally missed the point, just made things "dark" in a crass and childish way, etc... etc...

Millar would probably simultaneously rip off Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex of course.

OH HAI JMS.
posted by Artw at 4:16 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


FWIW When The Invisibiles first rolled out Morrison was talking about it as the conspiracy of all conspiracys, and I think there may even have been a reading list with Illuminati and PKD mentioned.
posted by Artw at 4:18 PM on November 18, 2012


He's done interviews in which he accuses the Wachowskis of stealing the ideas for The Matrix from The Invisibles

In fairness, the Wachowskis ripped off The Invisibles hardcore. Much of the first movie wouldn't exist without it. Morrison drew from many sources, but his book doesn't rely on any of them for its existence.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:23 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


It wasn't quite Hardware level swiping, but it was fairly blatant.
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on November 18, 2012


In fact, to continue my 2000ad gripes, I'd put it on a par with Robocop.
posted by Artw at 4:39 PM on November 18, 2012


At least Hardware expands on the original story! The Matrix dumbs the original down.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:54 PM on November 18, 2012


The only real head-to-head comparison that I can find is this page in Everything2, which has some really dubious entries, such as the "alien alphabet", and things that you could find in, say, Star Wars. Morrison has come up with his own list in one interview or another, but it includes things such as characters in both stories wearing black clothing and sunglasses. Really.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:38 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The only real head-to-head comparison that I can find is this page in Everything2, which has some really dubious entries, such as the "alien alphabet", and things that you could find in, say, Star Wars. Morrison has come up with his own list in one interview or another, but it includes things such as characters in both stories wearing black clothing and sunglasses. Really.

Off the top of my head, and this is leaving aside the obvious parallels in the premises and concentrating only on specific things that seem unlikely to be coincidental, the scene where the characters in The Matrix are being systematically unplugged by the bad guys is very close to a similar scene in The Invisibles where the characters are being physically tortured while having an out of body experience; the scene where Neo jumps off the building is very close to a key scene early in The Invisibles (involving a character analogous to Neo); Morpheus is dressed more or less identically to King Mob throughout (and plays a similar role), and experiences a torture sequence that is very close to one undergone by King Mob in The Invisibles...it's been a while since I read the comic or saw the film, but if you do both back to back I think you'll see what I mean...and really, as a story, The Matrix comes up very short in comparison, as sort of a flashy music video with an empty little head compared to a big crazy comic book written by someone who has clearly actually read a book at some point...
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:25 PM on November 18, 2012


Pastiches that draw on the same original sources are always going to seem similar, aren't they?

MAD touched on some of the same points in their bazillion Marvel and DC parodies in the 1960s as well, it seems to me (alas, my enormous MAD retrospectives collection didn't survive the merger of my Stuff with my husband's Stuff, so cannot confirm or deny).
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:52 PM on November 18, 2012


Pastiches that draw on the same original sources are always going to seem similar, aren't they?

Yeah, and it's possible that both comic and film were drawing on similar things. I just...am not aware of what they would be in specific, and a few extremely close matches in the context of a movie that's only two hours long seem like a lot of matches to me in the absence of some ur-text that both were working from.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:12 PM on November 18, 2012


You know who else must've read Superfolks? Brad Bird.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:19 PM on November 18, 2012


Beneath the beard... ANOTHER BEARD!

It's beards all the way down.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:44 PM on November 18, 2012


Whoops, sorry, kittensforbreakfast, I was talking about Superfolks and Watchmen and their to me inevitable similarities. I think your points about The Invisibles and the Matrix movies are a different fishkettle altogether. Apologies for the unclarity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:46 PM on November 18, 2012


Etrigan's mention of "Sexualized teen heroes" makes me think of that other grimdark eighties deconstructist superhero classic, Rick Veitch's Bratpack which really deserves as much attention as either of Morrison or Moore's entries.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:30 AM on November 19, 2012


I'm sorry, MartinWisse, but I disagree.

Bratpack was a case of 'let me give them a level of grimdark that wouldn't be replicated until they stopped taking the drugs over at Games Workshop', make as crapsack a world as possible and a group of characters who had absolutely no redeeming features at all. It desperately needs to be forgotten, and so does its sequel series, 'The Maximortal', which make it even worse. (I have read them all and really, really wish I hadn't.)

I think my largest issue with a lot of the superhero deconstructionism that's gone on since Watchmen and TDKR is that there's an undertone of 'and you should feel bad if you enjoy superheroes' to go along with it.

I think that this is why I now barely read any comics. There's so little fun in them anymore. If I wanted 'the world sucks and just keeps getting worse', there's actual news out there which is the same thing.
posted by mephron at 5:52 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Plenty of comics NOT like that.

"and you should feel bad if you enjoy superheroes" is practically its own subgenre alongside Grimdark Superheroics, with Marshal Law and anything by Garth Ennis that has superheroes being notable entries.

I think The Boys wraps up this month. I'm going to miss it.
posted by Artw at 7:18 AM on November 19, 2012


Also if we're talking Watchmen and TDKR the non-Superheroic American Flagg probably deserves a mention as a direct influence on those.
posted by Artw at 7:19 AM on November 19, 2012


I read this whole article and I feel like there's something I want to say about influences, the similarities you get when you work from the same source material, and suchlike. Not having read "Superfolks", or "What Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", I don't think I can really pass judgement on whether or not Moore's work is closer than "these are the obvious things that come to pretty much anyone when they think about superheros getting old".

Hell, Beowulf is about that - here's a hero, he does Heroic Deeds, then he gets old and settles into being a king, then he's feeling really old and wants to go out for ONE LAST AWESOME BATTLE to prove he's still got it.

I've got a half-formed point about how influence and creative "borrowings" happen hovering in the back of my mind and it's just not coming. Probably also about the tendency to start picking your biggest influences to shreds as you're progressing towards mastery of a form.

Well, back to working on my graphic novel that steals from PKD, the Invisibles, Accelerando, and one particular issue of the Post Brothers, I guess. And probably a bunch of other things I'm not thinking of right now.
posted by egypturnash at 11:22 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


and one particular issue of the Post Brothers

Is it the one where Ron becomes a superhero and accidentally pulls a baby's head off?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:05 PM on November 20, 2012


Also, Artw, I'd not include American Flagg! as a direct influence on either Watchmen or TDKR; if it's a likely influence on anything, I'd say Snow Crash, which has the same atmosphere of near-future dystopia with islands of sanity, and, more importantly, much of the same sensibility and sense of humor. If there's a direct antecedent to Watchmen in comics, it would probably be Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme limited series, although I'm pretty sure that Moore had already started to work on the original version (with the Charlton characters, not the expies he ended up creating) by the time that Squadron Supreme was published. And TDKR is much more serious and too involved in DC Universe history and continuity; if there's a Miller work that I'd compare to AF!, it would be his Martha Washington trilogy.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:15 PM on November 20, 2012


It desperately needs to be forgotten, and so does its sequel series, 'The Maximortal', which make it even worse.

Why? Bratpack's theme was pretty dark, but you have to realize that Vietch made that comic as a reaction to the popular fan vote for DC to kill Robin. Vietch didn't set out to make some kind of "grimdark" comic, but rather made a comic showing how stupid the "grimdark" fans want actually is.
As far as Maximortal goes, I thought it was great. It was basically about how Shuster and Siegel got screwed out of their money for Superman, and includes some Jungian Collective Unconcious stuff that Vietch likes to write about.

Also, I think some of the best stuff in Amercia's Best Comics came from Vietch.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:45 PM on November 21, 2012


Is it the one where Ron becomes a superhero and accidentally pulls a baby's head off?

No, it's the one where Ron and Russ split up to search for a new house after the Cold Front got destroyed in the first few issues.
posted by egypturnash at 10:40 PM on November 23, 2012


The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, As Told By Grant Morrison
posted by Artw at 4:45 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, As Told By Grant Morrison

Jesus. Now Michael Moorcock wades into the fight. This is like comic book/SF writer Highlander-- THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:00 PM on November 24, 2012


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