So, just to recap where we left off last time: it looks like Alan Moore has based all the big hits of his career on ideas he stole from Robert Mayer’s 1977 novel Superfolks. Various people, including Grant Morrison, Kurt Busiek, Lance Parkin, Joseph Gualtieri, and even Robert Mayer himself, have claimed at one point or another that Moore based a lot of his superhero work on various aspects of the book, specifically Marvelman, Watchmen, Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, and his proposal to DC Comics for the unpublished cross-company ‘event,’ Twilight of the Superheroes. But is any of this true, or might there be another explanation? To answer that, I’m going to go through the individual allegations or suggestions, and deal them one by one, to see how they hold up.
Did Alan Moore read Superfolks?
Firstly, there’s the question of whether Moore ever actually admitted reading Superfolks. Was Robert Mayer factually correct when he said that ‘Mr. Moore has never publicly acknowledged a debt to Superfolks.’? Actually, no, he wasn’t. In Lance Parkin’s The Pocket Essential Alan Moore from 2001, mentioned previously, there’s this quote from Moore:
By the time I did the last Superman stories I’d forgotten the Mayer book, although I may have had it subconsciously in my mind, but it was certainly influential on Marvelman and the idea of placing superheroes in hard times and in a browbeaten real world.
I asked Parkin where the quote from Moore came from, and he told me that,
Moore read a draft of the manuscript and added that line himself. From memory, it’s a handwritten annotation to the proof, one of only about three comments he had.
However, it did seem as if though nobody had ever actually asked him about this. One blogger, in this post, says,
I’d love it if some ambitious journalist removed his mouth from Alan Moore’s penis and asked him about this influence.
…which is a fair point, if somewhat colourfully presented. Has anyone ever asked Moore about this? has anyone, as the writer put it, removed his mouth from Alan Moore’s penis and asked him about this influence? Yes. I have. I’ve interviewed Moore a number of times, at this stage, and always try, amongst the questions on his current work, to ask him something about his older work, or to nail down some of the stories that have built up around him. So, in an interview published on 3AM Magazine on the 17th of March, 2011, there’s this exchange:
PÓM: Right, the first thing I wanted to ask you, actually, before I get into your own work is, I wanted to ask you about Superfolks. […] Grant Morrison was at one stage intimating that you’d read Superfolks and based your entire output on it.
AM: Well, I have read Superfolks. […] But it was by no means the only influence, or even a major influence upon me output. […]
PÓM: […] I mean, when you read Superfolks, what sort of influence would it have had on you?
AM: I can’t even remember when I read it. It would probably have been before I wrote Marvelman, and it would have had the same kind of influence upon me as the much earlier – probably a bit early for Grant Morrison to have spotted it – Brian Patten’s poem, ‘Where Are You Now, Batman?’, […] and that, which had an elegiac tone to it, which was talking about these former heroes in straitened circumstances, looking back to better days in the past, that had an influence. […] I do remember Superfolks and finding some bits of it in that same sort of vein. […] Like I say, it probably was one of a number of influences that may have had some influence upon the elegiac quality of Marvelman.
An obvious question to ask here would be why, in the ten years between 2001 and 2011, did Moore go from saying Superfolks was ‘certainly influential on Marvelman and the idea of placing superheroes in hard times and in a browbeaten real world’ to saying it was ‘by no means the only influence, or even a major influence upon me output’? Perhaps it is that in his initial list of things that had been influential on Marvelman he hadn’t mentioned Superfolks, and wanted to correct this omission in Lance Parkin’s book, but found that, in the interim, the number of claims that he was somehow a giant fraud, whose entire output was stolen wholesale from this one book, had made him more cautious, and you can hardly blame him for that.
That initial list of influences mentioned above is from a very early interview by Eddie Stachelski in issue #5 of Lew Stringer’s fanzine Fantasy Express in 1983, where Moore said,
When I researched Marvelman, I tried to get right back to the roots of the superhuman and sort out exactly what made the idea tick. I read obvious things like the Greek and Norse legends again, I read a lot of science fiction stories that touched upon the superhero theme… things like [Olaf] Stapleton’s Odd John and Philip Wylie’s Gladiator. I even read a few comics.
The thing is this: Alan Moore has always been a cultural magpie, Hoovering up everything he could find, and using them in his work – the first two volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen reference over eighty different works of fiction, along with work from other media, for instance. He’s hardly alone in this, but he has always been frank about what those influences are. This has already been alluded to above, and is going to be an even more prominent theme through the rest of this piece. I might as well warn you now that I am probably going to find some older – in some cases much older – examples for nearly all of the things Moore is said to have plucked from Superfolks, with only one real exception. But you’re going to have to keep reading to find out what that is. So…
Behold, I teach you the Superman…
The next allegation I want to address is the regularly repeated one that Moore’s Marvelman story and Superfolks both started off with the same quote. Grant Morrison alluded to this in 1990, as did Kurt Busiek in 2003, as mentioned previously. The thing is, this is both true and untrue, but mostly untrue. Superfolks has as an epigraph this quote:
Behold, I teach you the Superman:
he is this lightning, he is this madness!
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Thus Spake Zarathustra
The first issue of Miracleman, as published by Eclipse Comics in August 1985, begins with a ten-page story called Miracleman Family and the Invaders from the Future, which has originally published in L Miller & Son’s Marvelman Family #1 in October 1956. This is followed by a page of eight panels, consecutively tighter close-ups on the head of Marvelman from the last page of the Invaders from the Future story, finally ending up with a completely black frame. This is accompanied by this text, broken up over the eight panels:
I teach you the Superman:
he is this lightning…
he is this madness!
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche,
Thus Spake Zarathustra
Grant Morrison, Kurt Busiek, and Lance Parkin all point to similarities between Watchmen and aspects of Superfolks. Morrison alludes to ‘a weird conspiracy involving various oddly-named corporate subsidies,’ Busiek mentions ‘Ozymandias’s pervasive and complex commercial empire,’ which is effectively the same thing, and Parkin says that ‘The police going on strike because the superheroes are stealing their jobs is a key plot point in Watchmen,’ likening it to a similar situation in Superfolks. So, taking these one at a time…
In Watchmen Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, has a business empire that includes a large number of companies that feature in the story’s central conspiracy. In Superfolks Powell Pugh, aka Pxyzsyzygy, has a business empire that includes a large number of companies that feature in the story’s central conspiracy. Certainly, there would seem to be a similarity there. However, there are earlier instances of essentially the same thing – books with characters who own a large number of companies that feature in the story’s central conspiracy – which there is a very good chance that both Moore and Mayer would have read. Pierce Inverarity in Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 fits the description perfectly, as does Malachi Constant in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1959 novel The Sirens of Titan. Moore regularly cites Pynchon as one of his favourite writers, there are references to the work of Vonnegut in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, and I would be very surprised if Mayer had not also read one or both of these books, as well. So, on this at least, it is possible that both authors were, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by earlier works, rather than Moore having only seen the idea in Mayer’s work.
Lance Parkin’s statement that ‘The police going on strike because the superheroes are stealing their jobs is a key plot point in Watchmen’ is similar to a situation in Superfolks needs a bit more examination. Yes, the police in Watchmen do go on strike – there is a general police strike across the USA in 1977 because they are afraid that their jobs are threatened by the costumed adventurers. However, there is very little similarity between this and Superfolks, where New York’s police force resign en masse after working unpaid for seven weeks, brought about by the bankruptcy of New York City, something that very nearly happened for real in the 1970s. So, on one hand we have a nationwide strike, on the other we have a city-specific mass resignation, and both are for very different reasons. Except for the fact that in both cases we have streets unprotected by the police, there’s no other similarity between them. So, again, I’m going to dismiss all the accusations about Watchmen borrowing from Superfolks as being unsafe, at the very least.
Marvelman, Miracleman, Mackerelman, etc…
Grant Morrison makes various allegations, or suggestions of allegations, about the influence of Superfolks on Marvelman. In 1990 he said:
It’s all about this middle-aged man who used to be a superhero like Superman. […] There’s another middle-aged character in a rest home, who’s vowed never again to say the magic word that transforms him into Captain Mantra. There’s a corrupted and demonic Captain Mantra Junior and loads of other stuff about what it would be like if superheroes were actually real.
…and in 2005 he said:
In his bittersweet portrayal of the middle-aged Captain Mantra, with that half-remembered magic word always hovering somewhere on the tip of his tongue, I could see that Robert Mayer had prefigured the era of so-called ‘deconstructionist’ superheroes…
Yes, both works feature middle-aged superhero characters, except that in Superfolks David Brinkley has chosen to retire, whereas in Marvelman Mike Moran has been suffering from amnesia, so there’s a difference there, straight away. Brinkley’s decision to come out of retirement is really a variation on the ‘putting the band back together’ trope, the earliest example of which is probably to be found in the novel Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas, originally published in serial form in 1845, where d’Artagnan tries to get the Three Musketeers back together, as you might guess, twenty years after the events of The Three Musketeers. Marvelman, on the other hand, is an ‘amnesiac hero’ story, which dates back at least as far as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, published from 1859, again in serial form, or to the 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, which is probably the first time that a hero in a book suffered from traumatic amnesia, which is specifically what Mike Moran has. And I should also point out that, whilst Mike Moran was middle-aged, Marvelman was not, as they are actually two different entities, unlike David Brinkley and his superhero alter-ego.
Another thing that is evident is that Morrison really wants to say that the Captain Marvel analog, Captain Mantra, had, like Mike Moran, forgotten his magic word, so that he can accuse Moore of appropriating this as well, but stops just short, presumably because he knows it’s just not true, and that there really is no correlation between the two things. Actually, Morrison really is obsessed by Captain Mantra, considering for how brief a time he actually appears in the book, as he mentions him both times he writes about the book.
Morison also mentions a corrupted and demonic Captain Mantra Junior, meaning the character Demoniac, which Kurt Busiek also refers to briefly. So, is Kid Marvelman a direct take from Superfolks’s Demoniac? Unsurprisingly, I’m going to say no. Demoniac, the Captain Mantra Junior character, is the result of an incestuous coupling between Captain Mantra and Mary Mantra’s mortal counterparts, Billy and Mary Button. As such, he’s a classic example of a type that can be traced back to Mordred in the Arthurian legends, who is Arthur’s son by one of his half-sisters, Morgan le Fay, and who goes on to fight Arthur in his last battle, and dies at his father’s hand. Kid Marvelman, on the other hand, is a classic example of the idea that power corrupts, and a direct-line descendant of Captain Marvel’s enemy Black Adam, who preceded Captain Marvel as a recipient of the powers of the wizard Shazam, but became evil over time, which is more or less exactly what Johnny Bates, aka Kid Marvelman, did. Certainly there are superficial similarities between Demoniac and Kid Marvelman, but these similarities are not unique to these two characters, and plenty of other examples of incestuous sons turning on their fathers, or sidekicks turning evil, or power corrupting are to be found in comics, in literature, and in myth and legend. And, as well as all that, Demoniac has a very brief minor appearance in Superfolks, lasting no more than a handful of pages, as compared to the major role that Kid Marvelman has throughout Moore’s run on Marvelman.
I picked up one of the Ballantine reprints of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad which has actually got the Superduperman story in it, and I remember being so knocked out by the Superduperman story that I immediately began thinking – I was 11, remember, so this would have been purely a comic strip for my own fun – but I thought I could do a parody story about Marvelman. This thing is fair game to my 11-year-old mind. I wanted to do a superhero parody story that was as funny as Superduperman but I thought it would be better if I did it about an English superhero. So I had this idea that it would be funny if Marvelman had forgotten his magic word. I think I might have even [done] a couple of drawings or Wally Wood-type parodies of Marvelman. And then I just completely forgot about the project.
There are various other tellings of this story, from both before and after this version in Kimota!, but the basic story is always the same, and perhaps the most recent version is in this interview with Kurt Amacker on Mania.com.
As well as Superduperman, Moore also mentioned Liverpool poet Brian Patten’s poem Where Are You Now, Batman?, which he said was influential on the elegiac feel of Marvelman. When I went to look for a copy of this, I found that, much like Batman himself, it has actually been revised numerous times. This is, as far as I know, the original version, as it appeared in The Mersey Sound in 1967, before any of the revisions:
Where are you now, Batman? Now that Aunt Heriot has reported Robin missing
And Superman’s fallen asleep in the sixpenny childhood seats?
Where are you now that Captain Marvel’s SHAZAM! echoes round the auditorium,
The magicians don’t hear it,
Must all be deaf … or dead…
The Purple Monster who came down from the Purple Planet disguised as a man
Is wandering aimlessly about the streets
With no way of getting back.
Sir Galahad’s been strangled by the Incredible Living Trees,
Zorro killed by his own sword.
Blackhawk has buried the last of his companions
And has gone off to commit suicide in the disused Hangars of Innocence.
The Monster and the Ape still fight it out in a room
Where the walls are continually closing in;
Rocketman’s fuel tanks gave out over London.
Even Flash Gordon’s lost, he wanders among the stars
Weeping over the woman he loved
7 Universes ago.
My celluloid companions, it’s only a few years
Since I knew you. Something in us has faded.
Has the Terrible Fiend, That Ghastly Adversary,
Mr Old Age, Caught you in his deadly trap,
And come finally to polish you off,
His machinegun dripping with years…
You can find a slightly different version of this here; a spoken-word version by the author, again different, here; and there is also a substantially different version called Where Are You Now, Superman? here, where it is accompanied by two other poems, Adrian Henri’s Batpoem, and Roger McGough’s Goodbat Nightman, both from the same book.
Moore also mentions this poem and its effect on his work in a much earlier interview in Comics Interview #12 in 1984, where he says,
When I was about 16 or 17 I got involved with Northampton Arts Lab, where you’d get together with some people, hire a room, put out a magazine, do performances. I learned a lot about timing in comics from acting, and I learned how to use words really effectively from poetry. There’s a poem by Brian Patten called ‘Where Are You Now, Batman?’ It has a haunting line about ‘Blackhawk has gone off to commit suicide in the Hangars of Innocence.’ It made you think, ‘Ah! If only they’d look at those characters with a bit of poetry in the comics themselves!’ I think that’s where my attitude came from.
Twilight of the Superheroes
[Moore] clearly internalized Superfolks to such a degree that he never, ever makes note of the fact that Mary and Billy Batson’s relationship is an incestuous one. For those unfamiliar with Superfolks, the coupling of the book’s Batson analogues is a key plot point, producing one of the book’s major villains. Meyer’s take on the Marvel Family hangs all over Moore’s take on Billy’s sexuality in the [Twilight of the Superheroes] proposal.
The thing is this: DC’s Silver Age started in October 1956, Marvel Age in November 1961. By 1977, these were 21 and 16 years in the past, respectively. And in 1977, Alan Moore was 24 years old, and had been reading comics all his life. But he’d also been reading lots of other things in that time, as well. Certainly any adolescent comics reader would be likely to have speculated on what might actually happen if Clark Kent and Lois Lane ever finally did go to bed together, and even to have considered that perhaps Superman and Wonder Woman would have made a good match, as Moore suggested in Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? And Moore was obviously aware of things like Tijuana Bibles, as they feature in both Watchmen and League: Black Dossier, where he even creates his own. But what about the sexuality of the Marvels in his Twilight of the Superheroes proposal? Here’s the relevant piece:
House of Thunder
The House of Thunder is composed of the Marvel family, plus additions. Captain Marvel himself is the patriarch, and is if possible even more estranged and troubled by the state of the world than Superman is, perhaps because the Marvel family are having to come to terms with the difficulties of having human alter egos along with everything else, a point I’ll return to when I outline the plot. Alongside Captain Marvel, there is Mary Marvel, who the Captain has married more to form a bona fide clan in opposition to that of Superman than for any other reason. There is also Captain Marvel Jr., now an adult superhero every bit as powerful and imposing as Captain Marvel in his prime, but forced to labor under the eternal shadow of a senior protégé. To complicate things, Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel are having an affair behind the Captain’s back, Guinevere and Lancelot style, which has every bit as dire consequences as in the Arthurian legends. The other member of the Marvel clan is Mary Marvel Jr., the daughter of Captain and Mary Marvel Sr. Mary Jr. is fated to be part of a planned arranged marriage to the nasty delinquent Superboy during the course of our story, in order to form a powerful union between the two Houses.
Surely it’s not hard to see that the kind of dynastic intermarrying that is going on here is much more likely to be influenced by things like the ancient Egyptians, where sibling marriages were commonplace amongst the Pharaohs? And Moore himself references the Arthurian elements in this. Again, I think his influences are far more likely to be from other sources, and from his wider reading, than they are from the sole influence of Superfolks. Certainly the idea of there being a dynastic structure to the different groups, and that they would marry off their offspring for political purposes is his own, but straight out of European history, right up to the present times, nearly.
Whatever Did Happen to the Man of Tomorrow?
There is one final allegation of the influence of Superfolks on the works of Alan Moore, and it is perhaps the most troubling, at least to me. In September 1986 DC published the two parts of Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, beginning in Superman #423 and ending in Action Comics #583, a story which was meant to be the last Superman story of the Silver Age, ahead of a reboot of the character by John Byrne in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. In his introduction to the collected edition of the stories in 1997 Paul Kupperberg quoted DC editor Julius Schwartz on the difficulty he was having deciding who he should get to write that ‘last’ Superman story:
The next morning, still wondering what to do about it, I happened to be having breakfast with Alan Moore. So I told him about my difficulties. At that point, he literally rose out of his chair, put his hands around my neck, and said, ‘if you let anybody but me write that story, I’ll kill you.’ Since I didn’t want to be an accessory to my own murder, I agreed.
It’s this story that has perhaps the most pointed comments about its being influenced by Superfolks. In 1990 Grant Morrison alluded to ‘a simmering plot to murder the Superman guy and unleash unknown horrors on the world, […] In the end, the villain turns out to be a fifth-dimensional imp called Pxyzsyzgy, who has decided to be totally evil instead of mischievous,’ and in 2005 he said that ‘In the conspiracy themes, […] [and] fifth-dimensional science […] of Superfolks, we can almost sniff the soil that grew so many of our favourite comics in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond.’ In 2001 Lance Parkin said that ‘Superfolks and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? have the same ending – a formerly mischievous but now truly evil pixie character is behind the events of both.’ And in 2003 Kurt Busiek says ‘Look at the work of Alan Moore, possibly the most significant creator the field currently has of superhero stories that break with formula and expectation and inspire others to do the same and you’ll see this book’s influence throughout […] Mr. Mxyzptlk’s motivations and revelations in the finale of The Last Superman Story, and more.’
And they’re right. The ending of Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is very similar to a scene in ‘Superfolks. In Mayer’s book, Brinkley asks Pxyzsyzgy,
Why, Pxyzsyzgy? You used to happy with pranks, with mischief. The Cosmic Trickster, that’s your role. Why all this? Murder, intrigue…?
And Pxyzsyzgy replies,
Cosmic Trickster, shit. I’m tired of playing the clown. Call it Fool’s Lib. From now on there will be death, destruction, disease.
Although I should point out that he’s saying this as he’s being banished back to the fifth dimension…
Meanwhile, in Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Mr Mxyzptlk says,
The big problem with being immortal is filling in your time. For example, I spent the first two thousand years of my existence doing absolutely nothing. I didn’t move… I didn’t even breathe. Eventually, simple inertia became tiresome, so I spent the next two thousand years being saintly and benign, doing only good deeds. When that novelty wore off, I decided to try being mischievous. Now, two thousand years later, I’m bored again. I need a change. Starting with your death, I shall spend the next two thousand years being evil!
So, yes, there is a great similarity between Pxyzsyzgy and Mr Mxyzptlk. There is another similarity between the two of them, though: in both cases they are no more than plot device, someone there to represent an ultimate evil that has been behind the scenes all along. And in both cases they appear for exactly three pages before being dealt with and defeated by the stories’ protagonists. Certainly, in Superfolks, we are shown Powell Pugh, Pxyzsyzgy other identity, being involved from the start of the book. However, in Man of Tomorrow, until Mr Mxyzptlk turns up, Moore could have chosen anyone as the Man Behind the Curtain.
It is possible that there might be more of a reason than a conscious or unconscious memory of ‘Superfolks in the choice of Mr Mxyzptlk as the bad guy. In that same introduction to the collected Man of Tomorrow, Kupperberg goes on to say,
So, in a letter to Moore dated September 19, 1985, Julie [Schwartz] proclaimed, ‘The time has come! Meaning: that I’ve just been informed that the September cover-dated issues of SUPERMAN and ACTION will be my last before John Byrne and Co. take over. What I’m getting at is: the time has come for you to type up the story your ‘mouth’ agreed to do – that is, an ‘imaginary’ Superman that would serve as the ‘Last’ Superman story if the magazines were discontinued – what would happen to Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Luthor, Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and all the et cetera you can deal with.’
If this is the actual content of the letter, and not a post-factum version of it that handily matches the content of Moore’s story, then it does seem that Julius Schwartz has given Moore a very exact menu if who he wants in the story, specifically including Mr. Mxyzptlk. And there is another possible reason why Moore chose to use Mr. Mxyzptlk: In Superfolks Pxyzsyzgy is only banished back to his fifth dimension home, and can return to Earth in four years, by which time Brinkley will be completely powerless. Perhaps Moore couldn’t help wanting to find a better and more permanent solution to the problem, and having found it, really wanted to use it. Certainly, for my money, that scene when Mr. Mxyzptlk is finally dispatched is one of the scariest in comics, and a much better way of dealing with the bad guy.
So, this, and only this, is where I think Moore borrowed from Superfolks, whether consciously or unconsciously. That’s not to say he might not otherwise have been influenced by it, of course, or that the book does not have an interesting and possibly even important place in the development of how comics were brought to a more realistic and sophisticated place than they were before it was written.
There is no doubt that, at its heart, Superfolks is a parody of Superhero comics, and of Superman in particular. Indeed, it’s so close to DC’s Superman that it’s a wonder that DC didn’t actually take action, as this is something they’ve often done in the past. None the less, for a writer who claims that he gave up reading comics at the age of 12, and that his favourite comics character is Elmer Fudd, there is much of worth in Superfolks, if you strip away some of the silliness it contains perhaps a little too much of. And, while it probably owes at least some of its own roots to things like Marvel’s Not Brand Echh, and to Mayer’s own background as a journalist, equally we can see its influence in many modern comics, and even in things like the TV show The Greatest American Hero where, in imitation of David and Pamela Brinkley, we find Ralph Hinkley and Pam Davidson.
Obviously, in all of this, I’m very much taking Alan Moore’s side, but even so, I do honestly believe that many of the claims made about his appropriating ideas from Superfolks are either mistaken, exaggerated, or just downright wrong. I had hoped to say something about the vast array of influences that can be seen in Moore’s work, from the influence of Monty Python’s Bicycle Repair Man on his work in general, to the much more specific influence of the opening of Philip José Farmer’s To You Scattered Bodies Go on the idea of where the spare bodies are kept in Marvelman. But I really think I’ve gone on about this long enough.
There is one final part of this examination of Alan Moore’s relationship with Superfolks to come, however, called The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, which will appear here soon.