by Pádraig Ó Méalóid
In 1977 Dial Press of New York published Robert Mayer’s first novel, Superfolks. It was, amongst other things, a story of a middle-aged man coming to terms with his life, an enormous collection of 1970s pop-culture references, some now lost to the mists of time, and a satire on certain aspects of the comic superhero, but would probably be largely unheard of these days if it wasn’t for the fact that it is regularly mentioned for its supposed influence on a young Alan Moore and his work, particularly on Watchmen, Marvelman, and his Superman story, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? There’s also a suggestion that it had an influence on his proposal to DC Comics for the unpublished cross-company ‘event,’ Twilight of the Superheroes. But who’s saying these things, what are they saying, and is any of it actually true?
Before I get to any of that, though, here’s a brief(ish) overview of the book, just so I can refer back to it as I’m going along, if I need to. Superfolks was first published by Dial Press in the US in 1977, and was subsequently published in the UK by Angus & Robertson in hardback in 1978, and it then by Magnum Books in paperback in 1980, so it was at least potentially available in Northampton in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Alan Moore was, and remains, a voracious and omnivorous reader, and a book about comic characters would almost certainly have been something he would have wanted to have a look at, so it could have been – and as we shall see later, actually was – read by a young Moore at that time. But did the contents of that book influence him to such an extent that all of his major superhero work was based on it? Here, I’m afraid, is where I’m going to give away all the big secrets of the book, such as they are. If you don’t want to know, then go away, read the book, and meet us all back here afterwards…
David Brinkley is a forty-two year old New York journalist. He also has a secret: he’s a super-hero. He’s originally from the planet Cronk, where he was known as Rodney, the baby son of Archie and Edith, who put him into a spaceship (as Cronk was just about to explode) and send him to Earth, where he was found by a couple called Franklin and Eleanor from Littletown, who adopted him. He went to Middletown High, where he was infatuated with a girl called Lorna Doone. As an adult, he was originally involved with a fellow journalist, Peggy Poole, before he met his wife, Pamela Pileggi. (To add to these two sets of PP initials, we’re also told that ‘The world is actually ruled by a shadowy, rarely seen Dallas multi-billionaire midget called Powell Pugh.’ Peter Pan is in there as well, as a very dissolute version of himself.)
Brinkley is six foot one and has blue hair. His costume is described as a skin-tight blue leotard, with his emblem in white on the chest; slim red boots; red overshorts; a white cape; and a purple mask. He was known as The Man of Iron, and The Man of Tomorrow. His roster of enemies had names like Hydrox, Oreo, Univac, Elastic Man, Logar the mad scientist, and Pxyzsyzygy, the elf from the Fifth Dimension. Because he’s from Cronk, he is of course vulnerable to Cronkite, the radioactive meteoric remains of that planet. We’re never actually told what Brinkley’s superhero name is: he’s referred to as Indigo, but it’s made clear that this isn’t his actual name, but a codename – at one point, however, someone talking about him gets the first syllable ‘Supe-’ out before choking on their food, so we can interpret that as we choose. We’re also never told what the white emblem on his chest is, incidentally.
When the book starts, Brinkley has been retired from superheroing for eight years, because his powers were starting to fail on him. However, rioting, looting, and general lawlessness has broken out in New York, and the police force has resigned after not being paid for two months, following the bankruptcy of New York (which very nearly actually happened), so he decides that he’d better make a comeback to help deal with it. We’ve already been told that Batman and Robin, Superman, and the Marvel Family are all dead, so he tries to recruit Captain Mantra, another superhero who has given it all up. Mantra, under his other identity of Billy Buttons (and if Indigo is Superman, then Captain Mantra is very definitely Captain Marvel), is in a sanatorium, ever since seeing his twin sister Mary cut to pieces by a train when Dr. Spock tied her to the railroad tracks and she couldn’t remove her gag in time to say her magic word. Buttons could change back into Captain Mantra, but has sworn never to do so again, so Brinkley seem to be on his own.
So, to run through the rest of it quickly, it turns out there are several different parties who want Brinkley’s superhero alter ego out of the way, and have staged the riots to flush him out: the aforementioned multi-billionaire midget, Powell Pugh; the Mafia; the Russians; and of course the CIA – they’re all working towards the same goal, but it’s never made completely clear to what extent each interacts with the other, except that Powell Pugh seems to be in the centre of it all.. There is a very brief appearance by a supervillain called Demoniac, who is the offspring of an incestuous coupling between Billy and Mary Mantra, but he’s dead within a few pages. In the end, we find out that Powell Pugh is actually Pxyzsyzygy, the elf from the Fifth Dimension, and that, through all the companies he owns, he has been introducing tiny amounts of Cronkite into pretty much all manufactured items, explaining why Brinkley’s powers were fading. However, because he’s been caught, Pxyzsyzygy has to return to the Fifth Dimension. Brinkley has to choose between leaving Earth froever, which will mean he’ll have full use of his powers, or remaining with his family, and never having super-powers again. He does the right thing, and stays on Earth. Oh, and it turns out that everyone knew he was Indigo all along – after all, who else had blue hair?
Besides all of that, the book is filled with references to people who would have been famous in the mid-seventies, but not so much so now. For instance – and something I didn’t know until I decided to look it up, just in case – there was an actual American newscaster called David Brinkley. And, if you haven’t heard of Walter Cronkite, another American newscaster – although his fame had even reached as far as me, here in Ireland – then the fact that Brinkley is from the planet Cronk is not going to be as funny as the author wanted it to be. There are any number of other examples of actual people getting walk-on parts: actress Marilyn Monroe is a nurse, leading feminist Bella Abzug is a taxi driver, dancer Fred Astaire is the President’s valet, and so on, and so on. Other, non-real, characters also get a mention: on the first page we’re told Snoopy is dead, killed by the Red Baron, although he turns up alive later on. And the reference to Lorna Doone is more likely to refer to the American brand of shortbread biscuits than to the English novel by RD Blackmore. At one point, during the really-quite-serious bit at the end, where Brinkley is trying to decide whether to stay on Earth or go away forever, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother appears, says a few lines, and goes away again, for no reason that I can make out – it’s certainly not to advance the plot, or any other legitimate literary device I can think of. And this is part of the problem I have with Superfolks – the thing is, as far as I’m concerned, it’s really not very good. It reads, more than anything else, like one of those bad first novels that authors have in the desks, never to see the light of day. It cannot make up its mind, from page to page and sometimes from sentence to sentence, whether it’s attempting to be serious, humorous, cynical, flippant, or something else. Kirkus Reviews seem to agree, in this review, which says, ‘Mayer should include a laugh-track with every copy, since readers unwilling to give stock responses to TV images will find this about as funny as a plastic taco.’ The book would probably have benefitted hugely from being put into the hands of a good editor, who might have actually cleared a lot of this up, and made it into the better piece of work that is undoubtedly in there, struggling to get out. Still, what we’ve got is what we’ve got…
So, anyway, that’s the book itself. The next thing is, where and when did these suggestions that Alan Moore had ransacked the book appear, and who was saying them?
The first mention of this I can find is from Grant Morrison, who had a column called Drivel in the British comics magazine Speakeasy (ACME Press, UK) between September 1989 and March 1991, around the same time as he was breaking into US comics with Animal Man and Arkham Asylum. Right in the middle of his run, in Speakeasy #111 (July 1990), his column included this:
Cor, What a Coincidence!
Why, just the other day I was hanging around outside Saxone, hoping for a sniff of those new brogues, when up come a fella with a copy of this old book called Super-Folks by Robert Mayer in his hand. I’d heard of it but hadn’t read it. So home I skipped and buried my nose deep within the pages of this remaindered treasure.
And what a read it was! It starts off with this brilliant quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, right? ‘Behold I teach you the Superman: he is this lightning he is this madness!’
Then it really gets going!
It’s all about this middle-aged man who used to be a superhero like Superman. There’s a weird conspiracy involving various oddly-named corporate subsidies. There’s a simmering plot to murder the Superman guy and unleash unknown horrors on the world. There’s another middle-aged character in a rest home, who’s vowed never again to say the magic word that transforms him into Captain Mantra. There’s a corrupted and demonic Captain Mantra Junior and loads of other stuff about what it would be like if superheroes were actually real. In the end, the villain turns out to be a fifth-dimensional imp called Pxyzsyzgy, who has decided to be totally evil instead of mischievous.
Let me tell you, it’s a book I can only describe as visionary, and you must also believe me when I say it would make a great comic.
Or even three great comics.
If only I’d read this book in 1978, I might have made something of my life and avoided all this pompous, pretentious Batman nonsense that’s made me a laughing-stock the world over.
Oh well, never mind. There are plenty more books on the shelves.
After that, there’s a short final piece where Morrison writes:
That Bit at the End
All of a sudden, I’ve got the most terrible headache. It’s one of those nasty spite headaches, and I’ve no-one but myself to blame. I’ve over-indulged in the lowest form of wit this month, and it’s time to turn over a new leaf.
Or is it?
It’s fairly obvious that Morrison is pointing the finger at Alan Moore, and specifically at, as he says, ‘three great comics’: Marvelman (‘this middle-aged man who used to be a superhero like Superman’), Watchmen (‘a weird conspiracy involving various oddly-named corporate subsidies’), and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (‘a simmering plot to murder the Superman guy and unleash unknown horrors on the world’).
It isn’t until eleven years later, as far as I can see, that Superfolks gets mentioned again, in Lance Parkin’s The Pocket Essential Alan Moore (Pocket Essentials, 2001), where he says:
One big influence on Moore seems to have been the satirical novel Superfolks by Robert Mayer (1977), about a Superman-like hero who has retired, grown fat and become increasingly impotent in any number of ways. Moore’s work echoes the book in a number of places: the idea of Superman giving it all up to live a normal life has been a recurring theme; the police going on strike because the superheroes are stealing their jobs is a key plot point in Watchmen; also, Superfolks and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? have the same ending – a formerly mischievous but now truly evil pixie character is behind the events of both.
Although Superfolks was first published in 1977, and had become slowly better known as the years went by, it still took until December 2003 for it to be republished in the US. Nat Gertler of About Comics of Camarillo, California, got the rights for a limited edition of 2000 copies, which were only made available in direct market comics shops, according to his website. I can’t help but notice that the real David Brinkley died in June 2003, six months before this edition came out. Whether there is any correlation between this long gap in publication and that fact, I honestly don’t know, although, as Sherlock Holmes might say, it is strangely suggestive. The About Comics edition came with a cover illustration by Dave Gibbons, and an introduction by comics writer Kurt Busiek, who was effusive in his praise of the book, and in his opinion of its significance. Amongst other things, he says:
This is the best Superman parody I’ve ever read. [...] It was clearly written by a guy who knows and likes these characters, who knows the foibles of the superhero genre, and embraces them in all their absurdity.
This is one of the best Superman stories I’ve ever read. [...] there’s a damn solid plot, a story that – if it actually was a Superman story [...] would be well-remembered by fans for its clever ideas, its emotional power and its scope.
This is one of the best superhero stories I’ve ever read. Here, the superhero isn’t a metaphor for power, but a metaphor for power slipping away. This man’s a grownup – aging, fading – and the story is all about that.
I’m not the only one, either. Find the people who did new and different things with superhero stories, and odds are you’ll find that they’ve read and been affected by this book. Ask Mark Waid about it, and watch him smile at the thought of it. Ask Neil Gaiman, watch his eyes light up with enthusiasm as he talks about what an impact it had. Ask Grant Morrison. Look at the work of Alan Moore, possibly the most significant creator the field currently has of superhero stories that break with formula and expectation and inspire others to do the same and you’ll see this book’s influence throughout – from the epigraph that opens Superfolks and Watchmen being the same, from Kid Miracleman to Ozymandias’s pervasive and complex commercial empire to Mr. Myxyzptlk’s motivations and revelations in the finale of The Last Superman Story, and more.
I want to point out where Busiek says, ‘…from the epigraph that opens Superfolks and Watchmen being the same…’ He presumably meant to say Miracleman, rather than Watchmen.
And I also want to say that I took his advice, and I asked Neil Gaiman what he thought of the book. This is what he told me.
I loved Superfolks — it was a revelation to me when I read the book (with the gogochecks on the cover) and it was about stuff I knew, and taking it semi-seriously.
There is one final publication of Superfolks I want to mention, which contains another example of the finger being more-or-less pointed at Alan Moore. In March 2005 St. Martin’s Griffin of New York City published the book in paperback, and this remains the most recent edition of the book, to my knowledge. This time ‘round, the introduction was written by Grant Morrison, where he says, amongst other things,
Behind the unpromising pulp facade, I was happy to uncover some of the aboriginal roots nourishing the ’80s ‘adult’ superhero comic boom. […] In Superfolks I’d found a barely acknowledged contribution to the vivid and explosive evolution of the ‘mature’ superhero story that characterized the ’80s and ’90s. […] In his bittersweet portrayal of the middle-aged Captain Mantra, with that half-remembered magic word always hovering somewhere on the tip of his tongue, I could see that Robert Mayer had prefigured the era of so-called ‘deconstructionist’ superheroes, which in turn spawned many of the medium’s most memorable and ambitious works. In the conspiracy themes, complex twisting plot-lines, fifth-dimensional science, thrilling set pieces, and reverses of Superfolks, we can almost sniff the soil that grew so many of our favourite comics in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond. […] Historians of the funnies will find in Superfolks a treasure trove of tropes. Everyone else gets a good laugh and a good story as Mayer takes us to a wonky Earth-Nil parallel universe of downtrodden urban supermen and clapped-out cartoons.
Originally, all the commentary was in books and magazines. However, with the advent of the digital age, we invariably find it spreading to the Internet. Robert Mayer, the author of Superfolks, eventually joined in the debate himself, on his website. He says,
Time was when superheroes resembled grown-up Boy Scouts in tights. They were clean-living, clean-thinking, all-American chaps or women without a neurosis, sexual hang-up or mean thought in sight, always fighting for justice, America and the little guy against the villains of their make-believe worlds.
Then came the 1980s – and all that changed. Superheroes became filled with inner darkness, psychological problems, insecurities. In other words, they became real, suffering humans with real hang-ups alongside their super powers. The Dark Knight, for example. Who is to blame for this dark, downward spiral into the superhero abyss? Apparently, I am.
And, in a piece no longer on his site, he also said,
Among the spawn, many critics say, were much of Alan Moore’s work, including the ‘classic’ Watchmen. To my knowledge Mr. Moore has never publicly acknowledged a debt to Superfolks, but you can Google Superfolks and read all about it.
The other thing the Internet gave us, of course, is any number of opinions about the relationship between Superfolks and the work of Alan Moore. You only have to type the words ‘Alan Moore,’ ‘stole,’ and ‘Superfolks’ into your search engine to find any number of posts on blogs and forums, stating that, as you might guess, Alan Moore stole all his ideas for Superfolks. A quick search of the Internet brings these two examples: Here, the book reviewer actually spends most of his time talking about Kurt Busiek’s introduction, and says,
According to the introduction, there’s a disturbing number of prominent comics writers today who read this book back in the 70’s and cite it as a primary influence on their work. In addition to Busiek, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Mark Waid are all avowed Superfolks fans. Read this book, and you’ll find out where Moore swiped more than a few of his ideas for Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Miracleman, and Watchmen.
…and here, posted just as I sit here typing, we see what is a very typical posting, in a thread about DC’s forthcoming Before Watchmen comics:
I wonder how Robert Mayer would feel to see how Moore has ripped off his Superfolks novel countless times without credit.
There is one other online article I want to look at before I get to the end of this part of the story. The last post on a blog called Flashmob Fridays, on the 24th of February 2012, looked at Alan Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes proposal to DC Comics in 1987, which was never actually written and published, and remains one of his great lost works. The article is written by three different people, and one of them, Joseph Gualtieri, see in that proposal further evidence of Moore’s, as he says, ‘strip-mining’ of Superfolks for ideas.
Then there’s some of the content. Blackhawk picking up teenage boys is a gag (he’s really recruiting them into a private army), sure, but Moore also has Sandra Knight [Phantom Lady] sleeping around, Plastic Man as a gigolo, and an incestuous relationship between Billy and Mary Batson.
The other thing that occurred to me this time about Twilight is how in a lot of ways it’s the ultimate product of Moore’s decade of strip-mining Robert Mayer’s Superfolks that saw him produce Marvelman, Watchmen, and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? When Moore finally spoke publicly about Mayer’s book [a link which leads, embarrassingly but perhaps inevitably, top an interview I did with Moore where I asked him about this], he tried to minimize its role in his career and attack Grant Morrison for bringing it up (in a coded manner) in a magazine column:
I can’t even remember when I read it. It would probably have been before I wrote Marvelman, and it would have had the same kind of influence upon me as the much earlier – probably a bit early for Grant Morrison to have spotted it – Brian Patten’s poem, ‘Where Are You Now, Batman?’, [...] I’d still say that Harvey Kurtzman’s Superduperman probably had the preliminary influence, but I do remember Superfolks and finding some bits of it in that same sort of vein.
The Twilight proposal may be the best example of just how untrue what Moore said is – he clearly internalized Superfolks to such a degree that he never, ever makes note of the fact that Mary and Billy Batson’s relationship is an incestuous one. For those unfamiliar with Superfolks, the coupling of the book’s Batson analogues is a key plot point, producing one of the book’s major villains. Meyer’s take on the Marvel Family hangs all over Moore’s take on Billy’s sexuality in the proposal.
And that’s the case for the prosecution. Specifically, this is what the various people I’ve quoted are saying that Alan Moore took from Superfolks:-
In 1990 Grant Morrison suggested that Moore ‘three great comics’ on the book: Marvelman (‘this middle-aged man who used to be a superhero like Superman’), Watchmen (‘a weird conspiracy involving various oddly-named corporate subsidies’), and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (‘a simmering plot to murder the Superman guy and unleash unknown horrors on the world’).
Fifteen years later, in 2005, he was being a bit more circumspect in what he said, although it’s still pretty obvious that Moore was front and centre when he said: ‘In his bittersweet portrayal of the middle-aged Captain Mantra, with that half-remembered magic word always hovering somewhere on the tip of his tongue, I could see that Robert Mayer had prefigured the era of so-called ‘deconstructionist’ superheroes, which in turn spawned many of the medium’s most memorable and ambitious works. In the conspiracy themes, complex twisting plot-lines, fifth-dimensional science, thrilling set pieces, and reverses of Superfolks, we can almost sniff the soil that grew so many of our favourite comics in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond. [...] Historians of the funnies will find in Superfolks a treasure trove of tropes.’
In 2001 Lance Parkin said: ‘One big influence on Moore seems to have been the satirical novel Superfolks by Robert Mayer (1977), about a Superman-like hero who has retired, grown fat and become increasingly impotent in any number of ways. Moore’s work echoes the book in a number of places: the idea of Superman giving it all up to live a normal life has been a recurring theme; the police going on strike because the superheroes are stealing their jobs is a key plot point in Watchmen; also, Superfolks and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? have the same ending – a formerly mischievous but now truly evil pixie character is behind the events of both.’
In 2003 Kurt Busiek said: ‘Find the people who did new and different things with superhero stories, and odds are you’ll find that they’ve read and been affected by this book. [...] Look at the work of Alan Moore, possibly the most significant creator the field currently has of superhero stories that break with formula and expectation and inspire others to do the same and you’ll see this book’s influence throughout – from the epigraph that opens Superfolks and [Miracleman] being the same, from Kid Miracleman to Ozymandias’s pervasive and complex commercial empire to Mr. Myxyzptlk’s motivations and revelations in the finale of The Last Superman Story, and more.’
And up until recently Robert Mayer’s own website said: ‘Among the spawn [of Superfolks], many critics say, were much of Alan Moore’s work, including the ‘classic’ Watchmen. To my knowledge Mr. Moore has never publicly acknowledged a debt to Superfolks, but you can Google Superfolks and read all about it.’
Finally, in 20012 Joseph Gualtieri said: ‘[Moore] clearly internalized Superfolks to such a degree that he never, ever makes note of the fact that Mary and Billy Batson’s relationship is an incestuous one. For those unfamiliar with Superfolks, the coupling of the book’s Batson analogues is a key plot point, producing one of the book’s major villains. Meyer’s take on the Marvel Family hangs all over Moore’s take on Billy’s sexuality in the [Twilight of the Superheroes] proposal.’
So, really, that all looks pretty damning for Alan Moore. In the second part of this three-part-story, I shall attempt to see if there might be any other interpretation for all of these accusations. And in the third and final part, I’ll look to see if maybe there might not be a little tension between Moore and Grant Morrison, which might have helped to pave the way for all of this.