Cover versions

It should be pretty clear from the history of this blog – Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Alan Moore’s Marvelman, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the disgusted reaction to Before Watchmen before it even came out – that I’m an Alan Moore fan. Most readers of comics are, by default, Alan Moore fans. If you’re my age and came to maturity as mainstream comics did then it would be very unusual not to be an Alan Moore fan. I don’t claim to be exceptional.

And, like most unexceptional Alan Moore fans, I find myself split two ways on his current projects. I like the League a lot, even if I wasn’t as impressed with Century as I expected to be. But I waited for the trade of Neonomicon eagerly, bought it on the day of release and, like most, was unimpressed. There was a great deal less to it than there was to The Courtyard, an adaption of a short story that itself was pretty thin. I wasn’t turned off by all the horror. I quite liked the approach of laying open and making explicit all Lovecraft’s subtexts of monster rape and racism. The character of Agent Brears, the treatment of her sex addiction in hints and moments and reflections, worked. But the whole had approximately the same import and impact as Moore’s work for Wildstorm, probably the least inspired sustained run of his career.


Perhaps I’m making excuses for Moore but for me, a lot of that’s down to the art. Jacen Burrows doesn’t have any glaring flaws; it’s not like I can single out particular panels as particularly dreadful. His figures are okay, his storytelling’s adequate, everything’s laid out like a Hollywood soundstage so there’s never any doubt about what’s going on. But there’s no atmosphere, no sense that this very dark, exploitative story is being approached any differently from any other script. In repeated scenes of an underground swimming pool where a pre-human lizard monster is raping a woman as prelude to her execution, there’s no sense of foreboding, of horror, of despair. It could be in an office lit with fluorescent tubes and what’s transpiring could be the typing and filing for all Burrows seems to care. Arguably that’s a consequence of working with Avatar: you trade creative freedom and owning your own work for not getting the hot artist.

Consequently, I’m not keenly anticipating Providence, Moore’s 12-part series following up Neonomicon where Burrows is likely to again be the artist. I should be, given that this is the unfettered product of Moore’s imagination and the longest single work he’s produced since Promethea. But the dead fish drop of Neonomicon, the confirmation on rereading that yeah, that’s all there is to it, just a nasty little story about the Old Ones without even any decent concepts, means there’s no buzz. I’ll buy it – I’ve long since resigned myself to getting pretty much everything with Moore’s name on it, though thankfully I only got Albion from the library – but I’m not, y’know, jazzed about it.


When I wrote about Book Two of Marvelman, and the jarring switch from the art of Alan Davis to the work of Chuck Beckum and then Rick Veitch, a great artist who doesn’t do a great job, I suggested that if any republication was going to redraw and replace Beckum’s work they should redraw and replace Veitch’s as well. That was before I knew about one proposal, one of the many attempts to get Moore’s work on the character back into print, that would redraw the whole thing with original artist Garry Leach inking others’ work. (That’s covered in Paidraig O’Mealoid’s superb Poisoned Chalice series, which anyone interested in Marvelman or the quicksand of working on dubiously copyrighted characters should read.) It seemed like a very odd move – could anyone really equal Totleben’s exquisite work on Book Three? – but apparently could have dodged some legal issues.

But that got me thinking, and comparing, measuring comics against other art forms. Because nothing has to be set in stone. It isn’t in cinema, when remakes of old movies are frequent and often more successful than the originals. It isn’t in music, where cover versions, reimaginings of older songs, are expected and welcomed. (It doesn’t have to be older songs; in the UK, Radio 1’s Live Lounge has become an institution.) Novels, being the product of a single imagination, tend to stand alone until they’re a century old or more; inspiration is taken but it’s not direct. And theatre, because it’s entirely live, is all about reinterpretation.


Comics have followed literature’s example; pastiche, parody, emulation. But there’s no reason they shouldn’t do straight cover versions. Perhaps the original scripts for Marvelman stroke Miracleman didn’t survive the era of the typewriter and fax machine. Perhaps seeing a new version of that is impossible. But in the digital age when there is no text that can’t be recovered, no email attachment that the NSA haven’t got on file, then the scripts for Providence will be available. Perhaps in a few years, when the Magus has ascended to the Godhead, there could be another Courtyard, another Neonomicon, another Providence with an artist who can bring the life, perspective and collaboration to the project that’s so far been lacking.

And the sky’s the limit. What other comics could benefit from a cover version? Grant Morrison’s Batman run freed from the rotating artists and car-crash continuity of the original run? The Walking Dead in painted colour? Garth Ennis’s later Battlefields drawn by the superior collaborators he had on War Stories? Gaps plugged in series like The Invisibles and Sandman that suffered from unsympathetic fill-in artists?

It’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, because the publishers who value consistency and a long-term saleable finished product aren’t the ones who hire indifferent artists. Indeed, they’re rarely the ones who employ separate writers and artists. But when the Big Two finally collapse, and the New 52 certainly looks to me like a death spasm, perhaps it will happen; a new way of squeezing more cash out of the same intellectual property. New clothes for the old ceremony, cover versions, remakes, whatever. There’s no reason for it not to happen except it hasn’t happened yet.


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