The World's Tiniest Giant: Douglas rereads Moore's WildC.A.T.S.

I read Alan Moore's run on WildC.A.T.S. when it was originally published, between 1995 and 1997, and I don't think I'd read any of it again since. I remembered it as Moore seriously phoning it in, and I figured the republication a month or two ago of all of it in a single volume, ALAN MOORE'S COMPLETE WILDC.A.T.S., would be a good opportunity to go back to it and see how it's aged.

The answer: it's still phoned-in, but reasonably Good anyway. The biggest problem Moore was up against is right there in the table of contents: of the 15 "chapters" collected here (#21-34, plus his eight-page wrapup of a couple of loose ends from #50), no two are drawn by the same art team, and only four have a single penciller working on the entire story. Almost everyone draws in something like the Jim Lee and Co. house style--Lee actually turns up for bits of two issues--but none of the artists seem to be particularly invested in the story, Moore's not writing for any particular artist, and there are a lot of basic points of visual continuity that nobody can keep straight.

The most glaring example is Moore's comedy-relief character: Ladytron, a foulmouthed, sociopathic cyborg. (Her appearance here preceded the band of the same name, but I'm betting both of them were named after the Roxy Music song.) Somebody probably drew a model sheet of her at some point, but neglected to clarify where exactly on her face the robot parts begin. Travis Charest's cover for #22 suggests that her entire lower jaw has been replaced by metal; Kevin Maguire's art for that issue's story makes it look like she's just got some metal covering her chin--it starts a bit below the lower lip she suddenly has. And it goes back and forth for the rest of the book.

Anyone looking for evidence for the received wisdom that hot-superhero-book studios of the '90s couldn't actually get a story across should have a look at this book, actually. I didn't realize that Emp is supposed to be really short until about ten pages before the end, because none of his earlier appearances make that clear. A caption reads "Everywhere there are Daemonites. The streets are filthy with them"; the image that accompanies it has part of one Daemonite head in it. (They're hard to draw, I guess.)

A little while later, another caption reads "Giant stalactowers drip from the cavern's ceiling, far above, while the enormous stalagmansions rise to meet them from below, sequined with lights and windows. Though it's big and beautiful and eerie, it looks less like something out of Blake than the designs of Piranesi." Normally, that would violate the show-don't-tell rule--actually, it looks like it was flown in from a Moore panel description--but it's necessary here, because what's actually on panel is a gigantic shot of one character's shoulder and the back of his head, with a couple of buildings that don't look like that at all making a desultory appearance in the background. And the climactic scene where one character accidentally shoots another defies the rules of anatomy, perspective and basic storytelling--I had to rub the page for a little while to make sure there weren't two pages stuck together.

Given the fact that Moore was writing it, we can assume that the problem wasn't that his scripts didn't spell out what he wanted clearly enough. For his first few issues, in fact, Moore's trying to play along with the multiple-artist setup: he sends half the team out into space while the other half's on Earth, and he switches back and forth with his well-weathered cute segues. ("How could they keep us in the dark?" Cut to all-black panel.) Eventually, the space team comes back to Earth just in time for a big crossover ("Fire From Heaven," of which this collection includes only the WildC.A.T.S. tie-ins, conveniently labeled as chapters 7 and 13; I totally forget what happened in the rest and can't tell from the parts reprinted here), and Moore pretty much gives up and concentrates on wrapping up the plots he's already set in motion.

What makes this different from other Alan Moore projects is what's missing from it: this is virtually his only comics work of significant length that doesn't have some kind of formal plan or explicitly defined aesthetic, either for individual segments or for the entire thing. It's just a straightforward mid-'90s superhero story, and what it's "about" is nothing more than impresive poses and colorful phenomena. Unfortunately, Moore can't quite take that seriously--he keeps shifting into the rhythms of his comedy writing--and so his dramatic pyrotechnics don't push his WildC.A.T.S. anywhere thematically. If there's any recurring idea here, it's that violence is meaningless because it's inconsequential. Hadrian and the other androids destroy each other's bodies as a casual workout ("Ha ha ha! You've blown half my face off, you back-worlds hillbilly oaf!"); Zealot's sword-fight, the aforementioned thousand-razor-kisses thing, is a harmless ritual; Ladytron and Overtkill's big fight scene is an excuse for them to plan a date ("Y-you vicious little bitch! You ripped my guts out... w-with your bare hands! So, uh... are you seeing anyone right now?").

What Moore does when he's on automatic is toss out clever little ideas that he doesn't really have to think through: a hotel with a special "low-probability field," so coincidences happen there all the time; an American President-themed restaurant; a church for cyborgs; a bar for superheroes (he's not the only person who thought of that one...). He falls back on familiar tricks--a sequence, early on, where panels of expository conversation alternate with a fight scene with ironically appropriate bits of that conversation overlaid as captions is practically photocopied from Dan and Laurie's fight scene in the alley from Watchmen. And when all else fails, he overwrites: "A machine of steel and women, turning with jewelled precision, so that birth and sex and life and death are captured in this perfect choreography... this awesome quadrille, in all its appalling beauty. In its sacred violence. We score each other's white flesh with a thousand razor kisses...and the precious ruby wine of our existence flows... and mingles... and we are made one within the blood dance." This all appears on half of a two-page spread that's otherwise occupied by five figures and a fancy color effect to cover up for the fact that nobody got around to drawing a background.

So why is this book an italicized Good? Because even on automatic, Moore's got his knack for developing intriguing plot ideas, moving them forward, and making something entertaining happen on every page. The SF plot in the first half is a great little concept: the characters who've apparently spent the earlier part of the series fighting in this huge galactic war discover that it's actually been over for hundreds of years, their side won, and they've been oppressing the other side ever since. (Moore used roughly the same idea in Book 3 of The Ballad of Halo Jones, but it's still a good one.) The story arc involving the group's new members is nicely paced, and a lot of the plot twists are as surprising as they're supposed to be...

But the other reason I went back to re-read comics I didn't think were so hot the first time is that I've spent so much time reading Alan Moore's comics that now I can get some kind of pleasure out of anything he writes--there's one degree of fun that comes from reading his comics themselves, and then there's another degree that comes from figuring out how they fit into his body of work, and seeing how the minor works illuminate the major ones. (This may be the same thing longtime Claremontophiles get out of reading current Claremont comics; maybe you expect him to write about mind control in the same way you expect Kundera to write about tanks rolling into Prague...) Since the ABC line ended (right, the Black Dossier, I'll believe that one when I see it), I've been missing my regular Moore fix and realizing that there aren't too many comics from him left to come. WildC.A.T.S. suffers by comparison to much better Moore, but it's not bad at all--I read the whole thing in one sitting, and didn't even start to get bored--and at the moment I'll take what I can get.