So I recently stumbled upon a file I’d downloaded years ago, and tucked away on my hard drive for posterity: Twilight of the Superheroes, a proposal for a 12-issue mini-series, by Alan Moore. The great DC Comics crossover that never was!
Written in 1987, before the Watchmen deal went sour, this is the work of a younger and perhaps even slightly naive Moore, drunk with the newfound freedom to insert adult themes into super hero stories, and still of the belief that he could work with DC to their mutual benefit. It’s his attempt to produce a Dark Knight Returns for the whole DC Universe, a decades-spanning story on an epic scale, involving time travel, alternate realities, political philosophy, murder mystery, and a whole raft of C-List characters in key roles. It’s audacious and creative, filled to bursting with great ideas, and a good read even in pitch format.
It’s also probably for the best that it never saw print.
But I’m getting far, FAR ahead of myself here. This kind of internal document isn’t usually the sort of thing fans get to see, outside of deluxe hardcover editions reprinting stories that were actually released. So how did Moore’s proposal ever see the light of day? Simple: it was leaked in the early days of the internet, and spread like wildfire in the dork community (who, let’s face it, were pretty much the only people ON the internet in those days). And though it seems to have dropped off many people’s radar in the years since, the proposal’s still out there in certain nooks and crannies of the internet, and a web search can turn it up without too much effort.
At any rate.
Moore opens his proposal with what he calls “The Interminable Ramble,” a six-page introductory section in which he discusses the idea of crossover comics in general, and the overall marketing possibilities for the ideas he’s about to expound upon. That last bit is probably somewhat shocking for readers accustomed to Moore’s general disdain for anything associated with his DC Comics contracts of the 1980s. But he sounds fairly enthusiastic about it here, discussing how the series could be used to launch new characters and reinvigorate old ones. Even more surprisingly, he also goes on for a bit about the possibility of buttons, t-shirts, role-playing games, and even action figures (which he rather charmingly refers to at one point as “toy soldiers”).
Before you cry hypocrisy, though, keep in mind: Alan Moore has never been against making money. He grew up a poor working-class kid from Northampton, and the need to make money was heavy on his mind in his early career. He had kids to feed, after all. It really wasn’t until he himself sold the film rights to both From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that he had the luxury of turning down serious money on moral grounds. And his only public regret is that those movies actually got made (I believe his line on the subject was something like, “The ideal situation, as I understand it, is that they pay you for the idea, and then never get around to making the film.”). But once he had the money for those films, he no longer needed the money he was owed on his work with DC, a company he no longer wants anything to do with.
But that’s after all the lies and half-truths and other ugly business he dealt with in the comics industry. Back when he still believed DC would honor the spirit of the Watchmen deal, he was fine with various marketing schemes. He was all for the Watchmen blood-stained smiley face buttons, for instance. He provided background notes for the Watchmen supplement for the DC Heroes roleplaying game. He even discussed the possibility of other people doing stories with the characters. He would change his mind on that last one by the end, of course. But the point is, when he was still happy doing business with DC, he was up for really doing some business. So… Why not “Waiting for Twilight” buttons? Why not let RPG dorks romp amongst the squalor of the super-ghetto? Why not Twilight toy soldiers?
Well… Actually, there might have been good reasons not to do that last one.
But we’ll get to that.
First, I wanted to say a few words about Moore’s observations on crossover comics (what the industry has now labeled “EVENT” comics in a grandiose attempt to make them sound more important than they are). He lays out some very common-sense guidelines for these things. Guidelines that keep in mind the careful balance between artistic and commercial considerations, and… Well, here. Check this passage out:
The more we can reinforce the idea of the DC Universe as a magical and fascinating concept in itself, assuming that those are our aims, then the more successful we’ll be in keeping readers hooked upon that universe and on the books that chronicle its various phenomena. Of course, this approach isn’t without its problems. If you don’t do it right, if your assembled multitude of characters look merely banal … then your entire continuity is cheapened in the long term along with its credibility, whatever the short term benefits in terms of sales might be. When this happens, your only recourse is to greater acts of debasement in order to attract reader attention, more deaths to appease the arena crowd element in the fan marketplace, eventually degenerating into a geek show.
So, yeah. Marvel and DC have pretty much spent the last 30 years making Moore’s negative example into their primary publishing strategy. And now, we’re finally getting the geek show. They’ve gotten into the business of making comics that people feel like they HAVE TO read, in order to understand the comics they actually WANT TO read. Which is a silly way to think, as far as I’m concerned; recaps will inevitably tell you anything you really need to know, and the rest just doesn’t matter. But funnybook fans are notorious for their completist mindset. So they buy the crossovers and come to resent them, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with everything over time. But because the crossovers sell, the publishers keep making them. Which makes the readers more resentful, and more dissatisfied, and sales go down on everything across the line. Even books that have brought in new readers suffer. They may suffer more, in fact, because if you’re not a funnybook lifer, you ain’t gonna put up with that shit for very long.
But even the lifers will eventually give up, especially if you give them an idea that pisses them off enough for it to become the focal point of their hatred for everything else they’ve been resenting so much for so long. Case in point:
Marvel’s feeling the burn over THAT book even as we speak. “I Hate Nazi Cap” very swiftly turned into “I Hate Marvel,” and in spite of their marketing director’s attempts to blame it on diversity, the real problem is their cynical strategy of bleeding their fans dry. It’s going to take serious philosophical changes for them to recover, and even then it’s going to take awhile to win back their readers’ good will.
DC, meanwhile, has been smart enough to take advantage of their long-time foe’s troubles by finally admitting to the real problem, and backing off the crossovers for a while. So who knows? Maybe somebody over there finally sat down and read the Twilight proposal.
Nah, I’m just kidding. They’ve obviously read the Twilight proposal, because they’ve been mining it for ideas ever since. One of the most-often referenced stories on that front is Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come (hell, even we visually referenced earlier). But I don’t think Moore’s work had more than a passing influence on that book. Both are dealing with dystopian futures for the DC Universe, and some ideas are too natural to overlook. So while it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Ross and Waid were familiar with the Twilight proposal, I wouldn’t call their work derivative.
An earlier and more obvious example, though, is a mini-series called, appropriately enough, Twilight.
Written by Howard Chaykin, with gorgeous art from the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Twilight takes the basic premise of Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes, and applies it instead to DC space characters like Tommy Tomorrow, Star Hawkins, and (my personal favorite) Space Cabbie.
Hmm. It suddenly strikes me that, while I’ve long assumed this series was Chaykin’s take on Moore’s ideas… I don’t actually know that. And a quick web search hasn’t enlightened me any further, either. It’s just that the timing seems awfully fortuitous: Moore submitted his pitch in 1987, and Chaykin’s comic, dealing in very similar concepts, came out in 1990. Just enough time for somebody in DC editorial to get the idea that, even if they didn’t want to go that route with the company’s spandex cash cows, they might be able to use it to spruce up some 1950s sci-fi characters who hadn’t seen print in a quarter-century. And to then hire top talent to write and draw it.
Plus, you know, there’s the title.
So it makes sense. But I don’t actually know if it’s true. Hmm…
But now I’m talking about things that are similar to Moore’s story, when I haven’t told you what that story’s actually about. And even as I realize that, I also realize that I’m running out of time for this week. Much like Moore himself, I’ve let my introduction turn into an Interminable Ramble. So I suppose we’ll just have to save the story itself for next time.
In the meantime, though, if you’ve never read Twilight… You should really give it a look. It’s Chaykin at his post-American Flagg! peak, delivering his trademark cynicism in the form of sci-fi adventure and religious satire. But maybe even better, it’s three fat Prestige Format issues of incredible (and rare) interior art from Garcia-Lopez. Seriously, this is beautiful stuff, maybe the best work of his career. It’s just page after page of great layouts, sharp design work, and flat-out gorgeous art. Here, check it out:
Pretty great, huh? You can still find the original issues fairly cheap, I think, but there’s also (finally) a trade collection for those of you who don’t like the hunt.
And next week, we’ll be back with part two, as we finally get around to telling you what Twilight of the Superheroes was actually going to be about…