What could possibly link all of these comics?!?!?!?
Across the Universe: The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore (a-ha!) by Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (artist, Superman Annual #11, Green Lantern #188; letterer, Superman Annual #11), Klaus Janson (artist, Detective Comics #549-550), Jim Baikie (artist, Vigilante #17-18), Kevin O’Neill (artist, The Omega Men #26, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2), Paris Cullins (penciler, The Omega Men #27), Rick Veitch (penciler, DC Comics Presents #85), Joe Orlando (artist, Secret Origins #10), Bill Willingham (penciler, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3), George Freeman (artist, Batman Annual #11), Rick Magyar (inker, The Omega Men #27), Al Williamson (inker, DC Comics Presents #85), Terry Austin (inker, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3), Tom Ziuko (colorist, Superman Annual #11), Anthony Tollin (colorist, Green Lantern #188, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2), Tatjana Wood (colorist, Vigilante #17-18, DC Comics Presents #85), Carl Gafford (colorist, The Omega Men #26-27), Gene D’Angelo (colorist, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3), Lovern Kindzierski (colorist, Batman Annual #11), Todd Klein (letterer, Detective Comics #549-550, Green Lantern #188, The Omega Men #26-27), Annie Halfacree (letterer, Vigilante #17-18), John Costanza (letterer, DC Comics Presents #85, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2-3, Batman Annual #11), and Bob Lappan (letterer, Secret Origins #10).
Published by DC, 13 issues, cover dated 1985-1987.
Is this a SPOILER warning for comics that are over 35 years old? You bet it is!
Before DC irrevocably pissed off Alan Moore, they knew he was quite possibly the best comic book writer ever, so they used him quite a bit, and he responded with some quirky, creepy, beautiful, and powerful stories featuring both the big guns of the DC Universe and some of the lesser-known characters, as well. Back in 2003, DC collected these stories in this nifty trade, which is still in print (I mean, DC might be stupid, but they’re not stupid), so let’s take a look at it!
Good comics readers have probably read most of these, either in this collection or because you bought these issues back in the 1980s, when comics were cool, man. Here’s the breakdown, briefly:
1. “For the Man Who Has Everything” (Superman Annual #11): The most famous story in the volume, probably. Batman, Jason Todd, and Wonder Woman show up at the Fortress of Solitude for Superman’s birthday (29 February) and find him with a big plant on his chest, which is rendering him comatose. It’s the “black mercy,” a plant/fungus that feeds on “bio-auras,” giving those it’s attached to their “heart’s desire.” Superman has it on his chest because Mongul sent it to him, so we’re treated to scenes of Kal on Krypton, with a relatively happy family while Wonder Woman fights Mongul. Batman gets the thing off Superman (and it briefly attaches itself to him), and Superman beats the crap out of Mongul before Jason, having gotten it off Bruce, drops the plant onto Mongul. Day saved!
2. “Night Olympics” (Detective #549-550): Green Arrow and Black Canary bemoan the fact that common criminals aren’t as tough as they used to be, until some random dude with a bow puts an arrow in Dinah’s shoulder and Ollie takes umbrage. It’s fine.
3. “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” (Green Lantern #188): Another very famous story, mostly because Geoff Johns took a gag and ran with it, so Mogo became a bigger part of the DCU (I mean, the story was famous before Johns’s run on GL, but I guess he did quite a bit with Mogo). A tough villain lands on a planet looking for the mysterious Mogo, the toughest Green Lantern there is, and eventually – after several years – he realizes that Mogo is the planet. It’s very clever.
4. “Father’s Day” (Vigilante #17-18): Moore breaks out the nihilism, as Adrian Chase gets a phone call from the ex-wife of a very nasty dude he helped prosecute who’s now out of jail. Before Chase can get there, the dude kills his ex-wife and tries to take his daughter, whom he used to molest. Of course. The daughter manages to find some hookers who help her out, but the dad finds her, kills one of the hookers, and takes the daughter. Chase and the other woman, Fever, track him down, and Moore gives us a really twisted ending. This is really well done, but damn, it’s fucking bleak.
5. “Brief Lives” and “A Man’s World” (Omega Men #26 and #27): An arachnoid alien race declares war on two giants, and the way each race experiences time makes this a wicked little humorous gem. In the second story, an anthropologist can’t figure out how an alien race – all males – reproduce, but when she decides to flirt with one of the subjects she’s studying, she finds out – with brutal results. It’s a funny story, but also fairly nasty.
6. “The Jungle Line” (DC Comics Presents #85): Superman gets a Kryptonian infection that will cause his powers to freak out, so he leaves populated areas … and ends up in the swamp, where his unconscious body is discovered by a Mr. S. Thing. Swampy manages to cure him, which is nice.
7. “Tygers” (Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2): Abin Sur is on a rescue mission on a very strange world populated by weird demons, one of whom tells him his future, and hey! it comes true! How about that!
8. “Footsteps” (Secret Origins #10): The “secret origin” of the Phantom Stranger, who was an angel who wouldn’t commit to either side when Lucifer rebelled and was therefore rejected by both, juxtaposed with a dude living on the streets who does something similar. Oh, irony!
9. “In Blackest Night” (Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3): The story of Rot Lop Fan, the “Green Lantern” who can’t see, and how Katma Tui was able to recruit him into the corps even though he doesn’t know what color is or what a lantern is. Another story made more famous by Geoff Johns, I think.
10. “Mortal Clay” (Batman Annual #11): The story of Preston Payne and his mannequin wife. Moore loves him those twisted love stories!
Of all of these, the Green Arrow one is probably the least essential – it’s not bad, certainly, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with the characters and it doesn’t really feature Moore’s clever prose, which makes even his minor stories sing. It’s an interesting premise – Ollie and Dinah being a bit bummed that “regular” crooks are so scared of superheroes that they just give up – and Oliver’s wrath when Dinah is injured is handled well, as he very calmly proves to a low-level bad guy why they should be afraid of him, but it’s just a fun short story. Many of the other stories feel like some of Tharg’s science fiction tales from 2000AD, which isn’t surprising, given that Moore cut his teeth on those stories a few years before this. They’re in space, with weird creatures, and there’s an ironic twist, often the crueler the better. But Moore is good enough to layer on social commentary to these stories, making them more than just your standard twisty shorts. Mainly, this is because, like the best writers out there, Moore actually thinks about his characters and what would happen if you applied real-world logic to their situations. Yes, sometimes this leads to horrible places, like in Miracleman when Johnny Bates murders London, but it can come out in very interesting ways, too, and for the most part, in this collection it doesn’t necessarily lead to horror. In “A Man’s World,” it does, but it’s a bit muted. The anthropologist foolishly thinks she knows that the Culacaon males – a cat-like race – are like her, and have sex in mostly the same way. Moore knows that reproduction in nature is often quite different in different species, and it turns out Culacaons reproduces in a way that leaves the anthropologist dead. It’s a bit vicious, but also savagely satirical, as Moore pokes fun at the notion of completely different species mating, as often happens in science fiction (the cliché is Captain Kirk, of course, but he’s not the only one). The Culacaon method might seem strange to us, but our methods of reproduction surely would seem weird to other alien races out there, and Moore understands that. He also understands that not every species experiences time the same, which is the basis for “Brief Lives.” Insects and arachnids live far shorter lives than vertebrates, and if an arachnid race were sentient, they’d still experience time in a different way than we do, so in “Brief Lives,” we get the “spider guild” trying to destroy two “giants” who are living at a far slower rate than the spiders are, so the invaders live out their lives without the invaded even noticing them. It’s a sadly funny story, with Moore doing a good job in four short pages showing the utter futility of war. Moore wonders what would happen if the Guardians wanted to recruit a Green Lantern from a pitch-black world, and Katma Tui comes up with a clever solution, using sound as the basis for Rot Lop Fan’s oath and weapon, as he becomes the “F-Sharp Bell” rather than a Green Lantern. And why wouldn’t the Guardians give a ring to a sentient planet? There can’t be many better candidates in that sector to wield a ridiculously powerful weapon.
Moore also writes a lot of love stories in this volume, some of which are horrific but some of which are far nicer than what Moore usually writes. Despite the fact the “Night Olympics” is the least of the stories, the romance between Ollie and Dinah is handled well. The other love stories are curdled to one degree or another, but Moore still gets at the heart of love, with all its obsession and occasional ugliness and hope for redemption. In his Superman story, he gives Kal a wife and kids, but because his father’s predictions about the destruction of Krypton did not come true, his father is disgraced and begins hanging out with extremists who want to return to a “pure” Krypton. Moore doesn’t have time to do anything but make the parallels to our own world obvious, but Kal’s inherent decency leads him to start believing that his life on Krypton isn’t real. The anthropologist in “A Man’s World” chooses love (well, sex) over obeying the Prime Directive, and gets killed. In the Batman Annual, Moore gives us what we might think is a creepy love story, but it’s really not. Preston Payne, a man who tried to cure himself by using Matt (Clayface II) Hagen’s blood, becomes clay-ish himself, and by this Annual, he’s in love with a mannequin because she’s the only one who doesn’t melt when he touches her. But he lost her in a fire, and when he finds “her” again, he moves into the department store where she’s housed and begins a sweet romance. However, his fractured mind can’t deal with a security guard who, Preston believes, is coming onto her (with “Helena” making no attempt to dissuade him), so he kills the guard, which brings the friendly neighborhood Caped Crusader into the picture. Batman’s presence makes Preston believe Helena is having an affair with him, which sets him off, naturally. Batman stops him, of course, but shows compassion to a man who has been broken by his condition. Moore does an excellent job with the “romance,” as Preston slowly turns into a jealousy-ridden mess, ending the story by narrating that their love is gone, but they still pretend. It’s not a creepy love story (despite the fact that Preston is in love with a mannequin), but it is a sadly familiar one, as Moore uses Helena to create a nice metaphor about couples who no longer communicate. Even if one of the couple is a cursed, monstrous man and the other a plastic woman, their silence at the end speaks volumes. Of course, the other “love story” in this collection is a horrific one, as Carl Linnaker is molesting his daughter and kills his ex-wide just so he can get to the girl. This is one of the more terrifying short stories Moore ever wrote, because the people are so normal, for lack of a better word. Linnaker is a monster, but he’s a schlub, overweight and ugly, only able to do what he does because he’s fighting women and old men far smaller than he is (when Adrian Chase fights him, Linnaker is able to hold his own, but only briefly). The second half of the story is the most disturbing, because Moore has Linnaker narrate (he’s writing a letter to his daughter), and he writes about the good times they had when they were together, and how he only wants to be a family again, and we already know what he’s done to her, so it doesn’t make him sympathetic, but it does add a dimension that makes him more human. Moore allows him to write about the demons inside him, so it’s unclear exactly how mentally unwell he is, which, again, doesn’t make him sympathetic, but stops us from just seeing him as a pure monster. The shock of the story is that Jodie, his daughter, despite hating him, also loves him, so she defends him against Chase and is distraught when Linnaker dies. Moore knows that a child’s relationship with their parents is extremely complicated, and he doesn’t give anyone in the story an easy out. Love, Moore knows, is a very complex emotion, and a young girl like Jodie doesn’t know how to handle a father who she’s supposed to love doing such horrible things. It’s certainly not a heroic story, but it stays with you.
As with most of his work, even the nastiest, what makes these stories so great is Moore’s humanism. He writes characters as if they’re regular people, even if they can wrestle gods or they live forever or they’re, you know, planets. It makes his stories relatable in a way that so many of his peers’ stories aren’t, and it’s why even the minor stories in this collection are worth checking out. Superman is a superhero, of course, but his yearning for a regular life in “For the Man Who Has Everything” is what gives the story its bittersweet tang. Yes, Batman gets to experience life with his parents briefly, but that’s not uncommon with Batman, as writers often muse on what would have happened if his parents hadn’t been killed. Moore finds not only the yearning in Superman, but also the pain of that yearning, because even in his altered state, he realizes that his life might not be so wonderful if Krypton had not exploded. Much digital ink has been spilled on Superman’s rage when he finally confronts Mongul (after Wonder Woman, the unsung hero of the story, keeps Mongul busy while Batman and Robin figure out what to do about the Black Mercy), and that’s because it’s a completely understandable rage, the rage of a person, not a hero, and Superman’s famous “burn” statement has rightfully become iconic, because in that moment, we are all Superman:
In “Night Olympics,” Moore allows some humor to come in (Moore can be very funny when he wants to be), as the crooks think Dinah is Wonder Woman and another crook keeps getting stopped by superheroes, which makes him more than a little twitchy. When we learn about Mogo, it’s through Tomar Re, and Moore even leaves the possibility that Tomar is having some fun with Arisia with his tale of the Planet Green Lantern (obviously, in the DCU, Mogo exists, but that’s not Moore’s fault). I’ve already written about how Moore makes a monster like Karl Linnaker slightly more human, which makes the readers even more uncomfortable, but he does nice work with Louise and Fever, the prostitutes who take Jodie Linnaker in. Louise becomes a surrogate mother to Jodie in their brief time together, and Moore gives her some fun lines about the life they lead and how it will look if anyone finds Jodie with them. Karl kills Louise because she’s a Woman in a Refrigerator (except in this case, she exists to make another woman angry, not a man), but Moore is too good not to give her an interesting personality before he kills her. Fever kills Karl, and when Jodie freaks out about it, she’s unsure why everyone is angry at her:
When Superman shows up again in “The Jungle Line,” Moore shows us how difficult it is being him, as he has to flee so his uncontrollable powers don’t destroy cities. Swamp Thing understands that he’s fighting an infection, and he helps Superman get well, simply by making him aware that Superman isn’t battling demons from Krypton’s past, but a disease inside him. When Abin Sur goes to the terror planet in “Tygers,” Moore gives us the dark side of this humanistic aspect of his work. Abin Sur is a good Green Lantern and a good man, but he’s also sure of himself and a bit over-proud of himself, and the creature on the planet uses that against him. The Phantom Stranger, despite being an angel, is able to help the (pointedly unnamed) man on the street because he recognizes the sad humanity in a person unable to pick a side. In trying to stay allies with everyone, our “hero,” like Stranger, loses everyone. This is another utterly human impulse, and Moore not only shows why it might be a bad idea, but he shows that there’s still grace in the world for those who are at their lowest. And, of course, in “Mortal Clay,” we have a Batman who knows that punching Preston Payne into oblivion will do no good, so he extends an open hand to him instead. Many writers try to do these kinds of stories, and many of them succeed. Few succeed in such interesting and diverse ways as Moore does, or as often. These are superhero stories, sure, but they’re superhero stories that show how human the superheroes really are.
This is such an Alan Moore-centric book that the art is almost incidental, but it does help that DC put good artists on these books, probably with some prodding by Moore, who by this time had some power and could probably wield it a bit (Swamp Thing blew up in 1984, which I’m sure helped). Gibbons isn’t a perfect superhero artist, but his faces are very expressive, so he’s very good on a story that requires emotional resonance from Kal, and his Mongul has cruelty etched all over his face, which makes his ending, when he gets his heart’s desire, hit a bit harder because he’s so gleefully evil. Gibbons also gives us a wonderfully crazed Bolphunga in “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize,” as the aggressive alien slowly realized he’s met his match. The story doesn’t work as well without his dawning understanding of what he’s in for. Janson does his usual good, scratchy job on the urban jungle of “Night Olympics.” Baikie’s rough, heavily inked and hatched work is excellent for the Adrian Chase story, and his dense and occasionally chaotic layouts fit Karl Linnaker’s state of mind, while his black-and-white, fewer-holding-lines photographs sprinkled throughout the second half of the story beautifully emphasize Moore’s point about Linnaker and his warped love for his daughter. O’Neill gives us very creepy arachnids in “Brief Lives,” which makes their despair that they can’t affect the giants even more humorous, but O’Neill’s terrifying creatures in “Tygers” are really brilliantly done, as he draws them almost as stop-action puppets, which is a creepy effect. Cullins is the most “traditional” of the artists in the collection, and he does decent work, but it’s nothing spectacular. Veitch, like O’Neill, is good at weird things, so he draws nice hallucinations in Superman’s peripheral vision in “The Jungle Line” before going all-out when Kal thinks he’s back in Krypton’s prehistoric past. Orlando’s smooth, heavily inked worked gives us a nice contrast between the sewer dwellers and the angelic host, neither of whom are as bad or as good as we expect. Willingham doesn’t get to show off too much, but his precise lines work well in a GL story, as Katma Tui’s constructs are sharply delineated and Rot Lop Fan’s sounds are precisely drawn. Freeman has a lot to draw, and his attention to detail makes Preston’s sojourn in the department store feel real, as it’s beautifully rendered but also a bit claustrophobic. The way he draws Helena is terrific, as she has the slightest Mona Lisa smile on her which almost makes you believe that she knows what’s going on and what’s she doing to Preston, so you can fall just a bit into his delusions. There’s not a badly-drawn story in the book, which is nice.
Many comics readers consider this to be Moore’s “golden age” – he was writing Swamp Thing, sure, but he was also doing Watchmen around this time and he was playing in the vast DC sandbox, as well. When you get someone as talented as Moore, even minor stories become little gems, and while most of these fall into that category, they’re still worth your time. With Moore, as with all the greats, you often discover new things every time you read his stories. So it is with Across the Universe, which is why you should own this collection! You can find it at the link below (it’s really cheap!), and I think DC did a newer version that included The Killing Joke? You can stick with this one, though. You know you want to read all the Alan Moore stories you can!
As always, you can check out the archives!