Comics you should own
1963 by Alan Moore (writer), Rick Veitch (pencils, issues 1, 3, 5, 6), Steve Bissette (pencils, issues 2, 3, 4; inks, issue 4), Jim Valentino (pencils, issue 4), Dave Gibbons (inks, issues 1, 2, 6), Don Simpson (inks, issue 3), Chester Brown (inks, issue 3), John Totleben (inks, issues 4, 5) (Phew!)
Image Comics, six issues
This mini-series is brought to you by most of the people who brought you the revitalized and excellent Swamp Thing in the 1980s, but it's much less consequential than that. This series came out in 1993, and it's the beginning of Moore's affiliation with Image, or, as some people call it, his "selling-out" period. Well, maybe Moore desperately needed the money or something, but it's like an album by Prince: it might not be his best, but it's better than 90% of what's out there. I own this and Moore's run on WildC.A.T.s, and while neither is comparable to his classic writing (or even his more recent ABC stuff), it's still better than most of what passes for comics.
1963 is a pastiche of early Marvel comics. It's not really a satire, and it's not really a parody, because it doesn't really make fun of those old comics. What it does is lovingly recreates those early issues of, for instance, The Fantastic Four. You might ask "Why the hell should I buy them, then?" and it's a valid point, but for one, those early issues cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars (sure, you can get them in reprints, but the originals are still dear). Another reason is because Moore can write a good story, no matter what milieu he's working in. Okay, so maybe he does satirize the "Marvel Age" of comics a little, but although you are laughing along as you read these issues, you never get the sense that Moore wants you too. He's telling a story using the familiar tropes (if that's the right word) of the Marvel Golden Age (say, 1961-1965 or so). We laugh, but we're also swept along on a tide of nostalgia for a time when, we believe, comics were "more innocent" and "more fun." Anyone who knows anything about Steve Ditko or has ever seen Jim Steranko's subversive art from the period knows that's bullshit, but it's what comics fans believe. Even today there are web sites devoted to the 1960s-era comics as an example of "what comics should be," and comic book writers today are reaching back to "re-imagine" those days. Moore has never been one for nostalgia, and I think that's why 1963 does work as a satire, if you want to look at it that way. Instead of writing modern stories that hearken back to a more innocent age (a trend that began with Marvels and continues today with, say, Astonishing X-Men), Moore simply says, "I can write as if it were 1963!" It's not as easy as it sounds. The comics back then were seriously compressed -- eight pages to tell a tale, and move on! There was a crapload of information packed into every panel, which is why you had captions and thought balloons and expository dialogue that no one would actually say. Today we have pages and pages to show a man dropping a coffee cup (I'm looking at you, Warren Ellis). That luxury was not there back in the day. Yes, the comics were often ridiculous, and I'm not really a huge fan of them, but you have to admit -- you got a huge bang for your 12 cents (!).
Moore goes even further than that, with not only a recreation of a 1960s story, but a complete 1960s comic. The art, by a variety of good pencillers, is solid and unremarkable except for the fact that it looks like Kirby and Ditko and Heck and Colan and all those others from way back in the day. But the creators (and, to be honest, I don't know how much the design of the book is by Moore and how much by the artists, although knowing a little about how Moore works, I'd guess it was mostly him), go even further. In each book there is a page with Items! on it, like Stan used to put in each Marvel book, even into the 1990s. There are also footnotes to tell you where you can find the reference that is being made by a character ("See Mystery Incorporated #17 -- Assiduous Al). There are letters pages (sigh -- I miss letters pages) with typically gushing missives and typically self-congratulatory responses. There are wacky credits (Sensational Script by Affable Al Moore; Promethean Pencils by Roarin' Rick Veitch; Immaculate Inks by Dashin' Dave Gibbons -- you get the idea). There are crazy ads on the back (I want my own Monster S-I-Z-E Commie!). It's all very detailed and very manipulative, as if Moore is saying, "Don't you remember when comics were fun? Isn't this what you really want?" Of course, this coming from a man who re-invented the superhero with Miracleman, in which the mad scientist routinely raped his female creation; crippled Barbara Gordon; made Abby Arcane clean herself with steel wool -- you know, cheery stuff. Moore is playing with us, because we do feel a wave of nostalgia, even those of us (like me) who weren't even born in the '60s. This is what we want, we think, even as we laugh along. This is what comics ought to be.
So what, exactly, is the mini-series about? Well, it's about six issues long! Oh, hell, I'm not going to go into what it's about, because like comics from the 1960s, that would just spoil the magic. There are multiple dimensions and mysterious strangers and team-ups of various superheroes, and a twist at the end that disappoints, because Moore ties everything into the "regular" Image universe in a weird way and the mini-series doesn't even have a proper ending (the actual end is in a different book, which I haven't bought). This series isn't about the story, after all, it's about the moments. It's about laughing at the dialogue (such as when Johnny Beyond thinks to himself, "Bleeker Street was quiet that night, you dig? Strictly from nowhere! ... Your noble narrator had hit the bricks lookin' for kicks ... but all I'd found was a detour to Dullsville!") and wondering if things were ever this good. Of course they weren't -- Moore is, after all, probably the best writer in comics history, which is why this is good. He toys with us, and we're glad. Even though he comes up with things that sound sufficiently "Marvel Age," it's coming from the sensibility of 1993, and the genius of it is that it doesn't feel forced or anachronistic. I mentioned Marvels, which is a beautiful comic in its own right. However, Marvels never feels like it was written in the 1960s, even though it takes place then (for the most part). Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier, a series of much debate on some web logs, is also like this -- it deals with the 1950s and 1960s, but it's too modern for us to truly feel the unbridled joy of reading something bold and new. Moore obliterates thirty years of comics history, without really losing all the cynicism we've built up over the years. It's an impressive achievement.
1963 is, as far as I know, not collected in a trade paperback. However, the issues are pretty cheap -- I got all of mine for $2.50. When you consider that today's comics, with full pages of Dr. Strange looking stoic (yeah, that's you, Bendis) are going for 3 dollars, this is good value. Check these out next time you're at your local comic book store (you do support your local comic book store, don't you?) and pick them up for a joyous and weird trip down memory lane.