It’s easy to forget how funny Alan Moore is.
The grim outlook of Watchmen, the macabre conspiracy in From Hell, the dystopia of V for Vendetta, the occult philosophy of Promethea, the erotic politics of Lost Girls, the dense collision of tropes that is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — all tend to overshadow the silly, goofy, illogical, winking and wise-cracking side of his work. That lighter side shows most clearly in his work on Supreme, and in some of his America’s Best Comics titles — especially the Jack B. Quick stories.
Future Shocks collects some of Moore’s earliest humor work from 2000 A.D. (the magazine, not the year). Most of the stories are short, just a couple of pages, but some combine to make up a longer, ludicrous arc. Though they date from the early eighties, they feel like they belong to an earlier era: the humor is a little like the early Mad — oddball and mocking — often mixed with the morbid twist-ending of old E.C. comics. The art nicely accentuates this blend. Twenty artists contribute their work, including such notables as Dave Gibbons and Bryan Talbot. Some of the art fits the aesthetics of classic sci-fi — sharp lines, detailed space cruisers, the black depths of space, etc. — while some borrows more from the contemporary horror comics, and others opt for the bulgy, exaggerated expressiveness of humor strips. But they all clearly belong somewhere on the less sinister end of the 2000 A.D. spectrum. And the work is consistently good, if not always nice to look at.
The jokes here are not always good, but the joke is always the point. Character, plot, logic, taste — everything else is subordinated to the gag. Which makes it interesting to see Moore playing with some of the themes and concepts that he’ll develop later in his more serious writing. In one story, an aging Flash Gordon-style hero named Rocket Redglare tries to resuscitate his career with one last spectacular mission. In another, a hapless “out-of-work veeblefetzer repairman” answers an ad to become an “Evil Galactic Tyrant” and takes classes to learn “the blood-curdling laugh” and “a claw-like gesture of defiance.” Some plots concern our increasing dependence on, or subservience to, technology. One tale features a character named Rorschach Skubbs (no relation).
Time travel is a recurring gimmick. About a fifth of this volume assembles Moore’s “Time Twisters” stories. All of these turn on one or another of the paradoxes of time travel, and several base their plot on some possible social implication. Of course, time is one of Moore’s abiding obsessions, being central to the plot of From Hell, as well as some of the Supreme stories, episodes of Promethea’s adventure, and our entire understanding of Dr. Manhattan.
Seeing the ways the early humor comics anticipate this later work, it’s also interesting to see how the later works incorporate some of the aspects of humor. Much of Moore’s writing frequently contains something that is absurd, if not hilarious — the Five Swell Guys in Promethea, the double-entendres of Lost Girls, the multitudes of third- or fourth-rate superheroes populating Top Ten. Many of the cameos in Extraordinary Gentleman are played for laughs. The Swamp Thing doesn’t have any sense of humor to speak of, but then along comes John Constantine. There’s even a short story, titled “Vertigo”, in which V’s lethal weapon is a banana peel. The Killing Joke is not very funny at all, but there is a joke at the end that’s pretty good. The Comedian isn’t particularly funny, either, but Watchmen does, in its deconstruction of the superhero genre, sometimes flirt with the ridiculous. In one scene, Laurie and Dan trade stories of their misadventures – but the humor here, like everything in Watchmen — is infused with violence:
“You remember that guy?The one who pretended to be a supervillain so he could get beaten up? …Whatever happened to him?”
“Uh, well, he pulled it on Rorschach and Rorschach dropped him down an elevator shaft.”
“PHAAA HA HA HA! Oh God, I’m sorry. That isn’t funny. . . .”
“No, I guess it’s not. . . .”
Actually — yes, it is.