This essay is excerpted from Into the Comics-Verse: Comics and Contemporary Culture.
Any serious look at the recent history of comics is incomplete without mention of the British Invasion that swept American comics in the 1980s. At the center of that invasion, of course, was the eccentric genius behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Marvelman (or, if you’re a stickler for copyright law, Miracleman) and a seminal run on Swamp Thing, to name only a few.
Alan Moore’s work is magical, a designation the writer himself might take literally. A comics historian could write volumes on the ways in which the wildcard warlock reshaped comics, but for my money it was the vivid sociopolitical messages of his books that elevated them (or, at least, most of them) above the other high-quality work being published at the time and made an everlasting impression on the industry. For that we can thank his muse-cum-bugbear, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
To set the scene, it’s important to understand how Thatcherism typified the political landscape of the 1980s. Roughly cognate with the ruling principles of Reaganism in the United States, Thatcherism was defined primarily by the core principles of economic deregulation, low taxation, and high interest rates (a policy that counteracted inflation in the short term but wound up costing her a large portion of her lower- and middle-class supporters).
These policies, inspired by the work of Friedrich Hayek (author of The Road to Serfdom and a personal idol of Thatcher’s) and the entire Chicago school of economics, appealed with great success to a populace bombarded by the apocalyptic fantasies of the late Cold War (see Red Dawn, WarGames, When the Wind Blows, and the BBC’s Threads, among many other TV and film productions of the mid-to-late ’80s) . In practice, however, the economic policies of the Thatcher government put people out of jobs, attempted to neuter British labor unions, greatly widened the income gap, and the botched handling of interest rates made credit less accessible to the working classes.
Still, her rhetoric about small government, her anti-Soviet fearmongering, and her wholehearted embrace of post-Keynesian economic principles made her a guiding light of right-wing neoliberalism. Little wonder she found a kindred spirit in Ronald Reagan, a partnership Moore himself defined as “the Reagan-Thatcher fuck-buddy coalition”. The cesspool of pro-corporatist policies on both sides of the pond led to immense antipathy from the artistic ranks, but this antipathy was nowhere more apparent and forceful than in Britain.
This was compounded by the fact that, whilst espousing small government in the name of individualism, the Conservative Party were busy instituting social policies that undermined minority rights—most prominently Section 28, a law curtailing civil liberties for gays and lesbians, eerily mirrored today by the treatment of the LGBTQ community in modern day Russia under Putin. Another absurdly draconian proposal called for internment camps for AIDS patients. Both western world leaders inflected their rhetoric and their concrete policies with echoes of McCarthyism, rampant unchecked corporatism, and the annihilation of civil liberties in the name of fear.
Political zeitgeist often becomes fodder for an artistic revolution, and this was clearly true both during and leading up to comics’ British Invasion, a more radical, openly political movement than the moon-june-spoon pop song purveyors of the 1960s. A wide gap between popular sentiment and government policy leaves artists with ample room for exploration and countercultural morality plays.
I must concede that I am by no means the first to link this massive creative development to Thatcherism. In fact, the idea is popular enough to have boomeranged its way from public consciousness all the way back into comics as a meta-reference in issue 7 of Warren Ellis’s meta-exploratory fiction series Planetary. In an extended homage to the politically and formally British productions of the ’80s, Ellis proclaimed (through the character Jakita Wagner), “England was a scary place. No wonder it produced a scary culture.”
Why did this frightening culture inform Moore’s politics in particular? While both were born in Northamptonshire to working-class families, Moore and Thatcher could not be further apart by any other measure. Philosophically, Moore is an anarchist (maybe anarcho-syndicalist) while Thatcher was a kleptocratic conservative.
Moore’s most obvious attack on establishment fearmongering and nanny-state mass surveillance came in V for Vendetta, a graphic tale of anarchy versus totalitarianism originally serialized in the pages of the British comics magazine Warrior from 1982 to 1985, and later completed at DC Comics in 1988. Marvelman, a serial begun the same year as V, gave Moore the opportunity to strike at the heart of an unexplored facet of the superhero mythology. Stories ran the gamut of topics from unchecked power and collateral damage, and played with the genre’s uncomfortable overtones of fascism and eugenics.
Both of these books would set up a recurring theme for most of Moore’s 1980s work: the concentration of power in the hands of a few, whether the government, corporate plutocrats, or a single “superhero,” spelling disaster for the populace.
In V for Vendetta and Marvelman one can see Moore’s political slant most vividly. The former is a story of an anarchist freedom fighter (or, if you prefer, “terrorist”) rebelling against a tyrannical government, and the latter is about a protagonist who finds himself instituting one of his own. Though not bound by a shared universe, the thematic parallels between these books start from opposing sides but reach similar conclusions about the consequences of power.