Friday, August 28, 2015

Retro Review: Alan Moore's Twilight of the Superheroes

An Imaginary Story

Call it the greatest story never printed. Spanning, perhaps, 1988 and 1989, DC Comics might have run a massive crossover event called Twilight of the Superheroes. Scripted by Alan Moore, a master at the top of his game, TOTS would have been a 12-issue series set, for the most part, in a possible future of the newly minted post-Crisis DCU. Moore's notes proposing such a series, including his motives and copious musings over the fine details, long ago appeared on the Internet, to the chagrin of DC. However, TOTS was never to be written, drawn, or published. Soon after the proposal was received, Moore and DC had a falling out over material and creative disputes, and the series that might have been never was. Had the series been published, there's little reason to doubt that it would have been wonderfully written, well drawn, attracted the highest degree of attention, and been remembered for its impact on the DCU. But it never happened.

The Plot

The central plot of TOTS describes the following possible future:

In the 1990s, an increasingly decentralized society would cause the structure provided by governments to crumble and superheroes would become the only source of order. Several "Houses" of superheroes would carve the world into separate kingdoms, the most powerful heroes commanding the largest territories. On the verge of a royal marriage that would unite the two strongest houses into a power that none other could oppose, rival factions would plan a surprise attack to prevent the marriage from taking place. The battle would take place in waves, with various third and fourth factions waiting for two others to battle before trying to step in to vanquish the survivors. Ultimately, virtually all of the super powered beings would be defeated, leaving a coalition of non-powered heroes to guide humanity towards a new future free from the control of super powered overlords.

Moore's proposal placed that possible future in a very specific and important context, which would be communicated by a framing event: John Constantine, the mystical cynic from Moore's Swamp Thing run, would be instrumental in shaping this future – possibly causing it, or possibly preventing it. A framing event that would open and close TOTS would show the 1987 John Constantine receiving a message via time travel from the 2000 John Constantine. The older Constantine would tell his younger counterpart about the bloody war between superheroes that might come to pass and ask him to warn the key players so that the path leading to the Twilight scenario could be prevented. Once the 1987 Constantine delivers those warnings, however, he receives a postscript from his future self indicating that the warnings were calculated to cause the Twilight scenario, and that the older Constantine had deliberately used his younger self after calculating that the annihilation of superheroes was in the Earth's best interest. Then, in the series' final panels, the 1987 Constantine would attempt to strike back at his elder self, and possibly derail the Twilight scenario, by choosing not to meet, in 1987, the woman that would have been the love of his life.

Moore's proposal is exceedingly detailed on certain points, but confessedly, and understandably, nonspecific on many others. Key details which seem immutable, include the following:

• The future timeline of the DCU from about 1990 to 2010 is made uncertain because of a "fluke" created by the Time Trapper as part of an unrelated attack on the Legion of Super-Heroes. This makes the Twilight scenario that is the center of the story a possible future, but one that might possibly be prevented.

• In the Twilight scenario, as noted earlier, the American government has been replaced by various territorial fiefdoms run by superheroes. These are called houses and are analogous to the ruling families of Europe that took power during the Middle Ages.

• One leading house is the House of Steel, led by the now-married Superman and Wonder Woman and their son and daughter, young adults or teens as the scenario unfolds. The other is the House of Thunder, led by the married Captain Marvel, Sr. and Mary Marvel, Sr., and rounded out also into a quartet by Captain Marvel, Jr. (their longtime friend, now secretly Mary's lover) and their daughter, Mary, Jr. A wedding that would unite Superboy and Mary Marvel, Jr. would thus create a single house with eight beings at the highest level of power.

• Other rival houses are centered around, respectively, the Justice League, the Teen Titans, the surviving super villains, magicians, time travelers, and another group or two. A secret cabal of non-powered heroes led by Batman and a separate off-world alliance of aliens (notably, from Mars and Thanagar) and Green Lanterns figure importantly in the power balance.

• A seedy underworld centered on a bar owned by the former Shadow Lady would be the setting for a compelling locked-room mystery including a dead "midget" and a 6' 6" blonde call girl. This would turn out to be vitally relevant, as the dead man-boy would prove to be a sexually perverted Billy Batson and the blonde who entered a room with him, then disappeared, would be the Martian Manhunter. Captain Marvel died when Martian Manhunter killed Billy, and throughout the events of the Twilight scenario, whenever we see "Captain Marvel," it is actually Martian Manhunter in disguise.

• While the houses of Steel and Thunder have the greatest physical power in this world, the older John Constantine acts as a master manipulator behind the scenes, and he secretly directs an outcome in which the Batman-led faction ends up triumphant. This takes shape as the minor houses (Justice, Titans, etc.) attack the Steel-Thunder alliance at the royal wedding. After much bloodletting and many deaths, the off-world aliens swoop in to try to finish off the survivors, finally revealing that "Captain Marvel" was the Martian Manhunter, on their side all along. Sodam Yat (Moore misspells the name he had previously invented), the Daxamite Green Lantern, kills Superman, and the aliens seem to have prevailed, when Constantine reveals that he has allowed Qward to invade their home worlds, which causes the alien forces to leave Earth to go fight defensive wars on New Mars, Rann, Thanagar, and Oa. This leaves the non-powered forces such as Batman to rebuild a new world order free of all superheroes.

• The framing event makes the relevance of the Twilight future to the present (1987) DCU intentionally ambiguous. The younger Constantine's act of defiance in refusing to meet the woman who was his companion in the Twilight future may prevent it from taking place. Moore anticipates that the ambiguity will stimulate readers' interest in the years to follow as they see various signs in monthly comics that seem to confirm or reject the Twilight future as one that will eventually occur.

Hypothetical Impact

It has been noted that Kingdom Come, a memorable work by Alex Ross and Mark Waid has considerable similarity to TOTS. I would argue that Kingdom Come is closer to a realization of TOTS than it is to a separate work with minor similarities. But there are important differences, and one of them is that Kingdom Come was not so directly suggested as a possible future of the then-current DCU's present. Another is that in Kingdom Come, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman were not made out to be killers, and that the core of DC's heroes remained true to their traditional principles.

TOTS was never printed. Perhaps that is solely because of the falling-out between Moore and DC that ended all of his would-be projects for them and for no other reason. It is impossible to say if DC would have printed the story, had their relationship continued. If it had been published, it almost certainly would have been a hit ­– well written, well drawn, well promoted, and universally read. But perhaps some or all of DC's higher-ups would have vetoed the project on the basis of its tone.

Moore's story depicts the physical death of many superheroes, essentially to the point of exterminating them all, but it kills off their ideals long before their bodies die. His story makes DC's superheroes into freaks, perverts, tyrants, sadists, and killers; few are spared. Those depictions were not clearly "in continuity," which might have excused them. Certainly, stories by Moore and others showing some of the same darkness have been published (and highly regarded), so TOTS might have gotten the green light and gone on to attract the attention that it inevitably would have.

Moore in the mid-Eighties talks with energy and enthusiasm about how comics were beginning to appeal to an older generation of readers. This was allowed by, and further led to, content that was more interesting to and appropriate for older readers, in a cycle that shifted comics from titles selling up to a million copies per issue for an audience of kids to titles selling 50 thousand copies per issue for an audience of adults; by and large, the kid market evaporated, though it exists at a lower level of volume.

In the process, Moore became disenchanted with the idea of superhero comics as something beneath him, and left the genre for creative reasons, other disputes aside. But along the way, Moore scripted undeniable classics that transformed superheroes into petty, flawed, sometimes malevolent freaks who even in their efforts to do good ultimately did more harm than good. Moore's conclusion to TOTS, as seen through the eyes of an old Constantine (whom Moore's proposal calls "endearing") brands the superheroes as an obstacle to humankind's peace and prosperity. This is exactly the viewpoint spoken by Glorious Godfrey as he tried to turn humanity against superheroes in Legends, which was being published at the time Moore wrote the TOTS proposal (Moore mentions Legends, but indicates that he had not yet read it). It is also the viewpoint of Lex Luthor, in many of his various incarnations, regarding Superman and other superheroes. Moore, in essence, looked deeply at the superhero genre and decided that he sides with the villains, and then wrote stories fulfilling the villains' wishes. Then he dusted off his hands and walked away from the genre, having done just as much damage to the legends as he could.

And note the movement that took place: Comics written at a child's level for children to read were replaced with something else – superhero comics written at adults' level for adults. Then, as Moore would have it, the something else wasn't worth perpetuating and may as well have ended.

Virtually ever comic book written by Moore is superior in artistic vision to the issues of Legends, written by Jon Ostrander and Len Wein. Ostrander and Wein's story ends with the superheroes under siege from adults who were duped by Darkseid when children surge forward and surround them, proclaiming their love and turning the confrontation to the heroes' advantage.

Moore's works are inspired. Legends is silly and immature. But I find myself musing that Moore's works artfully carried out something very negative, whereas Legends, and many stories like it, did a sometimes-respectable job of something actually worthwhile.

Moore's brilliantly memorable "For the Man Who Has Everything," ends with Batman's gift to Superman, a rose named "The Krypton," being stepped on and killed. Superman, speaking with an intent known only to him, that he thinks may speak as accurately of the planet Krypton as it does of the rose, answers, "Don't worry about it, Bruce. Perhaps it's for the best."

TOTS was never published. Many fans and critics have lamented this, pondering what a great work it would have been. And I reply with Moore's words. Don't worry about it, fans. Perhaps it's for the best.


  1. Thanks for the summary of Twilight of The Superheroes. I have never taken the time to research and read up on what it would have been all about. In fact, I had never heard of it until the past year or so when it was referenced in relation to DC's "Future's End" event in 2014. You are likely correct that had it been written, it would have been another seminal work from Moore and a cornerstone of DC's Post-Crisis, "Modern Age" canon. I could absolutely see future creators teasing and rehashing it, sort of like how Days of Future Past has spawned an endless series of alternate timeline/dimension stories in Marvel's X-Men canon.

  2. Hi Nairu,

    I can't remember, now, when I first read the TOTS proposal, but I believe I read it quickly several years ago, and then carefully and in detail on a later occasion. Reading it now, I find major gaps in the details and logic, though that is reasonable for the preliminary nature of it. Perhaps a major point of interest is how Moore worked out some scenes so thoroughly before the outline was complete.

    My associated reading that I performed in preparing this post also made clear to me some of the gaps in continuity in existing comics, as actually published, so we can certainly forgive gaps in a proposal.

    Despite Moore's good points about the desirability of providing end stories to the legends, I don't think anyone has made any of them stick yet. Dark Knight Returns comes closest, but while it's extremely memorable, nobody expects it to be the future of the post-Flashpoint Batman. Essential legends of the superheroes seem to go only so far as the origins, and everything after that is up for being retconned again and again.

  3. Rikdad --

    Thank you for your fascinating posts on Moore and his work. Your TOTS post digs deeply into Moore's impact and motivations.

    I'll acknowledge that at the time, I never liked Moore's darkening of the mythos. In a literary sense, it was fit and proper for him to do so. But as a comics fan, I believed then and now he helped strip comics of the "something actually worthwhile" that had been their raison d'etre for a half-century.

    Marvel Studios tapped into that "worthwhile" when it started its film continuity with "Iron Man" seven years ago. On the screen, at least, we have heroes we want to root for, vanquishing of villains that we hope for. But in comics, the combination of flawed heroes and never-ending stories have made rare that story or storyline ending with a triumphant, smiling hero. Even Grant Morrison's Batman run, with its early references to the hairy-chested globe-trotting hero of the 1970s, wound up in a bleak, bleak place (with "the hole in things" in the end being inside the hero himself).

    Certainly world events show that threats and evil can't be resolved and conquered in a 24-page comics story, and Moore's brilliant storytelling gets at that. In essence, he says, our heroes can't even defeat their own internal demons.

    Nonetheless, there are days I wish the Superman of 2015 could spend the occasional issue battling the likes of Captain Strong or defusing a feud for his attentions between Lois Lane and Lana Lang.

  4. I was surprised by how little Batman was given to do in the proposal, especially given as the major point of conflict seemed to be the human vs meta-human angle. Then again him and Constantine larglely share the same sneaky and manipulative skillset which meant one or the other was going to receive the main narrative. And it seems like in this case Moore favored his pet character.

  5. ManWithTenEyes, I appreciate your comments on the give-and-take between maturity and darkness in the genre. Circa 1990, in a conversation with a friend with high literary sensibilities but a disdain for comics, I cited Man Who Has Everything as an example of how good the genre could be. But TOTS would have gone unreservedly over to the dark and perhaps contributed less in the way of quality (though, we can't say). Your comment on Captain Strong made me think at once of Grant Morrison's take on Captain Marvel in Multiversity, which showed importantly that a story can be good and entertaining and light-hearted, all at once.

  6. sakei, I suspect that you are entirely right, although the finished work might have given Batman more emphasis than the proposal did; he still remains one of the top figures in the final status quo.

    In Kingdom Come, Batman basically commands the situation more than anyone else, taking on the role that Constantine shared with him in TOTS. One of the key moments in KC's finale – and one I found painfully trite – is when Batman responds with a smile to Superman's final speech, which took the form of a solution to the situation but seemed like empty words to me. Nonetheless, in what might be regarded as the final version of TOTS, KC did place Batman in a commanding role.