“In comic book history, is Stan Lee a Hero or a Villain? Well, to borrow a concept that he himself made popular during the early sixties, he’s a Hero/Villain, just like Sub-Mariner or Hawkeye. He has had an influence upon the medium which is as benign as it is poisonous.” – Alan Moore
In April of 1993 Alan Moore’s 1963 was released. This six issue series took a satirical look at the comics industry from the perspective of a fictional version of early 1960s Marvel Comics. Emily Scott, Dean Compton, and I have taken a look back at this series in the form of an article (courtesy of yours truly) and a podcast (featuring my co-conspirators). Being fans of the work, as is and for what it could have been, we hope you will join us and, please, comment on both below!
Dean “Killer” Compton and Emily “Scintillating” Scott deftly discuss the marvelous masterpiece that is 1963.
Working primarily with artists Rick Veitch and Steve Bissette each issue featured at least one self-contained story, numerous hints at a larger, interconnected fictional world, and one or two story beats for the overarching plot that extended throughout the series and would have concluded in the unpublished seventh issue. Reasons for this gap range from Moore’s increasing, and varied workload across the nascent Image Comics to internal sniping amongst said company’s founders. More often than not I see WildStorm Founder, and current Co-Publisher of DC Entertainment, Jim Lee’s name mentioned. 1963 was actually the brainchild of fellow Image Founder Jim Valentino who wanted to work with one of the creators he most admired. As far as I can tell Lee’s only contribution was forcing a character named Void to be renamed “Voidoid” to avoid confusion with his WildCATs’ character of the same name.
The first issue is Mystery Incorporated. It featured a team analogous to the Fantastic Four. Not the versions Marvel was publishing in 1993 but rather the ones that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby worked with back in the early days of the Marvel Age. Little is done to mask the homages and it must be noted that this book saw print on a few years before Jim Lee’s relaunch of the title during “Heroes Reborn.” Regardless of how that was received, Moore’s decision to move ahead with a distinctly Silver Age feel for this, and subsequent issues, shows how out-of-synch he was with the rest of the industry. Whether or not this was a good thing can be debated but what cannot is that when Moore had previously decided to do what no one else was it worked in his favor.
Subsequent issues were No One Escapes the Fury (featuring a Spider-Man/Daredevil hero and a jetpack wearing, female Nick Fury), Tales of the Uncanny (a barely veiled Captain America analogue and a mysterious pseudo Iron Man known as the Hypernaut), Tales of the Beyond (Staunch anti-Communist Hulk and a beatnik Dr. Strange), Horus, Lord of Light (my personal favorite, trading ancient Asgard for Egypt), and finally The Tomorrow Syndicate (assembling various aforementioned characters into an Avengers team that could track down the missing Mysterious Incorporated). Various villains, supporting characters, and cosmic beings work their way onto the pages. These are great superhero comics even if they are aping a style that was long gone by the time they saw print. There is a bit of the old used to introduce surprisingly fresh villains and threats. When was the last time you read six, satisfying, and done-in-one-stories in a row (well, five, more on that in a bit)? If this series was out of place when it came out, then it is fair to say it would fit right in today.
By the time of the last issue, the Tomorrow Syndicate, Moore had yielded to the Siren’s song of easy Spawn money and had left primary plotting duties to Veitch and Bissette. This book struggles valiantly to wrap-up anything and everything that the various characters have been involved in but is prevented from doing so by the enormity of the absent final issue that it was originally supposed to lead into. This proposed Giant-Size Special would have featured Our Heroes venturing to the seemingly post-apocalyptic world of 1993 New York to do battle with the heroes of the Image world (Shaft, of Youngblood, is the only character shown on-page). The book appears to tread water and, unfortunately, the series does not end as strong as it began.
Time for an (as “The Comics Internet” calls it) Art Paragraph: Veitch and Bissette match up pretty well with Marvel’s co-founders (with Stan Lee), Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. They even work on the properties their respective forbearers were known for. Veitch, capable of mimicking a variety a styles flawlessly, gives us the faux Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, and Avengers. If you have not already, do yourself a favor and Google Veitch’s original pitch for Marvel’s The Sentry and see what a master of the form can come up with before having it misappropriated by Paul Jenkins.
Bissette gives us Spider-Man and the Hulk (you may not know that the original Hulk was one of Lee & Kriby’s few failures and it was not until Ditko relocated the character to the American Southwest that he slowly became the hero we all know and recognize today). Bissette also gives us Hypernaut who probably bears the least resemblance to his Marvel analogue and is all the better for it. In the days before Robert Downey, Jr., Tony Stark was often uncharismatic and struggled for relevance. The Hypernaut is more of a Green Lantern character whose adventures are filled with the type of brain-bending, super-scientific obstacles that only Alan Moore could throw at him and only the medium of comics could be used to credibly showcase.
There are other artists who worked on these issues and while I do not mean to diminish their contributions it is really these three who run the show, so too as with Marvel back in the day. Though I am particularly fond of Horus, and would gladly purchase a Fourth World esque follow-up series where the pseudo decedents of the Ancient Egyptian Deities fight for relevance in today’s world (what would their Darkseid be, if nothing else?) I have to say that the most worthwhile aspect of 1963 is, by far, the wholly original backmatter.
Those familiar with Watchmen may have struggled with when, and how, to read items such as the excerpt from Hollis Mason’s autobiography or Tales of the Black Freighter but once you did then you can see how they complement and augment the story being told within the comics. These six issues feature fake letter columns, brand new advertisements, and pastiches of Stan’s Soapbox which all serve to paint the picture of 1963 Comics as a real place of business that parallels the House of Ideas. Using the guise of “Affable Al,” Moore treats us to long romps through the ridiculous and surreal on topics such as how rampant nepotism guarantees work-for-life for him and that the idea of Creator Rights being a thing left to the far future.
Is Moore channeling Stan “The Man” Lee? Yes, of course. Marvel is Stan in so many ways, good and bad, but history has not been kind to the co-creator of Ravage 2099. Today creators are put at the forefront of their work, often becoming as popular as the properties they are working on, and modern scholars look back to what came before and wonder why, exactly, creators such as Jack Kirby (whose estate’s very public battle for recognition and profits almost went before the US Supreme Court) came out so far behind Marvel’s perpetual Chairman Emeritus. This type of outside-looking-in commentary is where the book makes a clear break with what came before. Told in an intentionally over-the-top manner, echoing the manner in which Stan used to communicate with Marvel’s fans, these pages help bring to light many of what would become the darker, seedier truths of the Comic Industry, especially as it relates to those working with superheroes.
Marvel was three years away from filing for bankruptcy when 1963 arrived. It was fair to believe that the company was not what it had once been but that both, what it had been and what it now was, were awful in their own ways. Not that they did not lead to a comics boom in the 1960s and the revitalization of the superhero genre, but they never gave the hardworking men and women their due. To a degree this conflict is shown to be alive and well behind the scenes of 1963, both within the backmatter as references are constantly made to the “Sixty Three Sweatshop” (instead of the Marvel Bullpen) and those making the six issues themselves in real life.
I was not familiar with Steve Bissette before reading 1963 (which I did mostly out of order and years after it shipped). He has (or at least had) an active web presence, detailed posts, and plenty of interviews. He even announced a follow-up to 1963 using the characters he owned long after any chance of a collection or reprint of the original series was pronounced dead (though careful readers may have noticed them in other Image properties such as ShadowHawk and Big Bang Comics for an issue or two). The problem, for me, is that Bissette (who previously worked with Moore on Swamp Thing) can come off as a bit entitled. He left 1963 part of the way through to work on a still-unfinished dinosaur comic named Tyrant. His bibliography is shorter than I would expect for a man still capable of producing work. In short, he comes across quite similar to Alan Moore.
I do not know about you but I have read many interviews with the Great Wizard of Northampton and few of them put him in a positive light (and not just because he once compared Grant Morrison to herpes). Brilliant, clever, and capable of plotting some of the tightest stories I have ever read. Did you enjoy the first season of HBO’s True Detective? What you may not know is that the last line uttered by Rust is from a Giant Space Horse in Moore’s Top 10. You know what else Moore is responsible for? Neonomicon (do not Google that if you are at work). The man is as varied as his work and he saw 1963 (along with his later work on Rob Liefeld’s Supreme) to be a way of paying the genre back for all the pain and misery he caused it with Marvelman and The Killing Joke.
Unfortunately Moore has proved to be “the Orson Welles of Comics” (not my line, but I have never forgotten it) because if that many people tell you that you are that brilliant and that revolutionary that early in your career then you eventually start believing it and stop taking risks. Bissette constantly talks about his own achievements and I have to research most of them because I have been reading comics for over two decades and have never heard of any them. There is a sense of entitlement around both men which may help to explain why supposedly neither have spoken to each other in a long time. Moore supposedly no longer speaks with more than half of the co-creators of his more famous works and spends his time telling how he eschews the internet in favor of first edition Aleister Crowley tomes. It is a weird hipster chic to accompany the beard.
Moore was never a man to live in the world he was working in. He could have made a seventh issue for 1963. He could have found a new artist for Big Numbers after Bill Sienkiewicz dropped out. He could be working on the Next Big Thing right now but he is not. He left the Kirby & Lee analogies to wither away in the Quarter Bins for decades because he received exactly what Kirby and Ditko never did: Money and opportunity. Why fight with artists and publishers and do this cute little crossover when you could write WildCATs, Spawn, or even Spawn vs. WildCATs and make more money doing less work? Moore wants his name taken off of Watchmen and I have to explain to people at my LCS that “The Original Writer” (credited for the reprints of Miracleman) is the same guy who wrote V for Vendetta and but I can get Spawn: Blood Feud with no problem?
I enjoyed 1963 and I appreciate it. I love classic Marvel because I have read about it and I love the Marvel that was modern in 1993 because I experienced it. Mistakes will always be made but if we learn from them then what else can be expected? Change is good and no one was in a better position to effect it than the first comicbook writer to ever win a Hugo Award (1988, Watchmen with the unmatched Dave Gibbons). As it is, 1963 remains not only unfinished, but uncollected, and unremembered. Many conversations I have had with fellow Moore fans have ended with blank stares when I mention Commander Solo or the Shimmering Zone.
Alan Moore, king of the mountain, teamed with Image Comics, the then bright hope of the industry (which would take a few decades to get going but find someone who does not like them now) to produce a series of glorious escapist fiction and get the industry to remember a few of the ways it had been. Who knows how much of the muck and grime that came after would have been avoided if Moore had humbled himself to ask Jim Valentino, the man who actually set this entire thing in motion, to do the work that needed to be done instead of waiting around for someone who appeared to be a bigger name? Moore aimed a lens at Stan Lee and joked that he consistently screwed over his colleagues and never worked in the best interest of anyone other than himself. We now know that this probably was not that far from the truth. What about Moore himself? Does he echo some of the baser aspects of the person who inspired Kirby to create Funky Flashman?
I mentioned Supreme above and, while I cannot fault someone for wanting to stop working with Rob Liefeld, I feel the need to point out that it too remains incomplete. Unfinished apologies that never received the scope or accolades of the darker, deconstructive fiction that preceded them. Instead Moore moved on to other projects including a series of “spoken word” performances. In one such piece, known as The Birth Caul, Moore laments that “we have wandered too far from some vital totem, something central to us that we have misplaced and must find our way back to.” I have to wonder what exactly he was thinking of when he wrote that and, more importantly, if he ever asked himself what he was willing to do to help us get back to where we needed to be.
1963 is a great, but flawed work. Have you ever wanted to see Steve Rogers save President Kennedy from an assassin’s bullet? How about a version of Hank Pym that does not immediately make you want to see him punched in the face? There is something to be said about telling good stories set in the 1960s with the aid of hindsight, just as some of the best World War 2 superhero stories (The Golden Age, The Invaders) have a few decades between when they are set and when they were published. Its greatest failing is that that no one appeared to be in charge during its creation. As a result, a great idea that existed outside of the Big Two continues to languish in relative obscurity.
I have said this before in regard to Jack Kirby’s Secret City Saga but part of me wonders what would have been if this series had been made in partnership with Marvel. Similar to the deal Moore had with DC over Watchmen (itself to the Charlton characters what 1963 is to the Marvel characters) or with WildStorm for the ABC line of comics (you can still buy Promethea whenever you like, open up another tab and do so right now if you have never read it!). I want a thriving independent comic landscape because when it is great we are treated to properties such as Hellboy. When it is less so we lose beloved characters and any hope of seeing them in new or old stories. Maybe we will learn from this and treat the industry as the business that is but, if not, we can all hope that Alan Moore, who has decades of life left, will make his triumphant return.