No art wears its disposability so lightly as the much maligned superhero comic. Month after month these comics appear with tawdry dependability—not unlike Sue Grafton novels or Fall albums—for years on end. But while the life span of a superhero comic may last decades, the characters never age. Instead, they undergo radical makeovers every few years, when new writers or artists are brought in to trim their capes and update their attitudes.
In 1996, Alan Moore was hired to reimagine the superhero known as Supreme—part of the Awesome Entertainment stable owned by artist-writer Rob Leifeld—a character even Moore acknowledged to be a “very, very, very, very, very” sorry excuse for a superhero. Generally considered a superheroic writer himself for his work on such genre-transcending works as The Watchmen and From Hell, Moore not only completely transformed Supreme, but also made the same-only-different nature of such radical revisions the book’s underlying theme. The 22 issues Moore wrote over four years are collected in last year’s Supreme: The Story of the Year and the new Supreme: The Return. (The series ended eight issues before his planned conclusion when Awesome lost financing.)
Moore reconceived Supreme as a self-reflexive take on the archetypal superman living in that weird old DC Comics universe of magical imps, superpets, bizarre villains, imaginary stories, and multidimensional tomfoolery. Supreme is a thickly muscled, larger-than-life supreme being complete with supersister Suprema, superdog Radar, extra- terrestrial creation myth, citadel of solitude, alliterative archnemesis (Darius Dax) and girlfriends (Judy Jordan and Dana Dane), and secret identity. When disguised as mild-mannered yet hunky Ethan Crane, he draws the amusingly redundant Omniman comic among co-workers oblivious to his alter ego. “Maybe it’s just how things are with me,” Supreme says of the see-through disguise. “Maybe it’s just, like, part of my story . . . ” Omniman is just one of many comics within a comic that spawns iterations of itself like a recursive virus. Moore doesn’t just give us one Supreme or Dax or Dane—he gives us their myriad revisions as well. (Supreme’s villains aren’t even exactly evil, just “badly written.”)
Superheroes, for Moore, are contemporary manifestations of the mythological gods of yore, who reflected the tenor of their times as succinctly as contemporary pop-culture obsessions do ours. Which perhaps explains why today’s superheroes resemble hackneyed corporate manifestations of their formerly glorious selves. What makes Supreme more than just another retro regurgitation of comics’ golden, silver, and Mylar ages, however, is the dizzying felicity with which Moore juggles the various strata of superhero archaeology. Supreme is Moore’s big dig, a Möbius-strip time warp looping endlessly between superhero comics’ hypermuscular present (female breasts are bigger and better than ever before, too) and their earlier, more modest, naive, and charming incarnations. Batman 2003, for example, consists of Bob Kane’s original creation as well as the camp ’60s Batman, Neal Adams’s slick ’70s version, and Frank Miller’s bloody, hardcore take of the ’80s.
A decade ago, Moore indulged his fascination with the early-’60s so-called Silver Age of Marvel comics in the retro-without-a-cause pages of the short-lived 1963 series. Moore makes much better use of Supreme as a portal into numerous mock Supreme comics from the ’40s through the ’80s, all rendered with loving fidelity and story-moving verve by artist Rick Veitch. The eternal return of Supreme and “Pasteur of Perfidy” Darius Dax to the primal scene when Ethan Crane was first exposed to the element Supremium (a mystic molecule less akin to kryptonite than to LSD) encompasses everything from Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s amazing-tales simplicity to longtime Superman editor Mort Weisinger’s Newtonian rationality, Harvey Kurtzman’s Madness, and genre parodies of “Classics Illustrated” and western comics.
Jack “King” Kirby, without whom none of this would have been possible, tops Moore’s comics pantheon. Characters inspired by Kirby, whose Fantastic Four and Captain America virtually defined Marvel’s Silver Age, pop up throughout Supreme. In “New Jack City,” the stand-alone comic that concluded Moore’s Supreme stint, the superhero stumbles across a Kirby-esque hidden valley in the Himalayas. A panoply of Kirby creations—including a Bowery-kid street gang, a cigar-chomping World War II platoon, and plenty of cosmo-futurist architecture—turns out to emanate from the exploding Oz-like head of the master himself. Supreme engages Kirby in a brusque colloquy on the everyday magic of creation, Supreme returns home, and the series ends. At least until the next revision.
Apart from his fascination with the mystic ontology of ideas, Moore’s work is magical in a more traditional sense of the term. His rich yet daunting 1997 novel Voice of the Fire, featuring shamanic stories spanning a couple of millennia and set on the same patch of British turf he calls home, is reflected in the spiraling Time Tunnel in Supreme’s Citadel that offers access to all historical eras. And as a self-proclaimed magician in the Aleister Crowley tradition, Moore uses his current Promethea series as an exciting and psychedelic magical primer. Superheroes may be nothing more than reflections of adolescent wish fulfillment, but Moore views them as something nobler, stranger, and more magical than that insofar as they spring from the deepest wells of the creator’s psyche. When Supreme ponders the “central mystery of his existence,” as he does in his first Moore-written issue, he’s bellying up to the crux of all artistic creation. Comics may be ultimately disposable, but what Moore has done with the medium’s mulch guarantees lasting import.