What do you think of when you think of Alan Moore? Well, beards, for one. Watchmen, for two. Being one of the crankiest guys in comics when he wants to be, for three. And the rest: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, Promethea, Captain Britain, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?,” blah blah blah. Here’s what you probably won’t think of until you’re down near the bottom of the list: First American. And that’s why you should read the rest of this instead of going and armchair analyzing the Green Lantern box office numbers or looking for pictures of more guys posing like Wonder Woman on Tumblr or whatever. They’ll still be dangerously contrapposto when you’re done, bud.
Point of fact: Alan Moore is uproariously funny. Not always, of course, but when he wants to be, he’s side-splittingly good at it. He knows better than to position himself as gleaming idol of austere wit — his humor is very much of the British tradition of existing in the gravity well between the classes, showcasing the wit of the educated and working-class butt jokes alike. If I had to come up with a good comparison for First American, really, the first thing out of the bag would be to say: “What if Alan Moore had that movie Airplane! but about superheroes instead?” This is more apt than one might originally think. The funniest running joke in Airplane! was the fact that everyone said all of these ridiculous, incredibly stupid things with the gravity and sincerity of a eulogy. So it is with First American — Jim Baikie only rarely tips his hand, instead drawing the maniac antics as if it was a straight superhero strip (while taking care to pack the background with throwaway jokes like something out of MAD Magazine, to boot). Baikie was, it must be noted, Alan Moore’s first long-term collaborator on 2000 AD, where they did the strip Skizz together. America’s Best Comics was all about Alan Moore having fun creating things with his friends. First American was the most fun of them all.
The First American is an insane, almost certainly mentally retarded superhero who everyone hates, including his own sidekick, U.S. Angel. Like all oblivious blowhards throughout history, he’s convinced everyone adores him, and routinely boasts of his skills and victories. This sums up most of the substance of First American‘s ten-or-twelve-page blurts: First American being stupid and almost always selfish, U.S. Angel being selfish and sometimes stupid, and villains either getting dealt with (or not) until the two heroes end up fighting each other. In fact, as much as it’s “Alan Moore Does Airplane!,” it’s also “Alan Moore Does Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” First American is Master Shake. U.S. Angel is Frylock and sometimes Carl. Everyone’s a moron, a pervert, or both. This is, for the record, still Alan “From Hell” Moore we’re talking about.
Within the broader context of America’s Best Comics, this was obviously the comic relief’s comic relief. Sure, ABC had funny moments in most of its content, and First American even rubbed elbows with the clever Jack B. Quick and the daffy Splash Brannigan. But its sheer anarchy set it apart from the rest. When Cobweb ventured into the 1960s, you pretty much knew what jokes you might get, what cultural signposts would get defaced. But just because First American started one place didn’t mean it would end there — indeed, it was usually a guarantee that it wouldn’t. For all of Promethea‘s personal reflection, Top Ten‘s casual, even cavalier moments of genius, Tom Strong‘s big nostalgic heart, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s austere cleverness… et cetera, none of them could match First American‘s pure freedom. The freedom to holler and make bad jokes and look dumb and have characters change sexual orientations based on whatever’s funnier in that panel. Freedom from being the harbinger of Grim and Gritty, and freedom from trying to compensate for same.
I assign a lot of importance to First American in the above paragraph, but really, it’s pretty meaningless. It’s Alan Moore and Jim Baikie having fun, and inviting us along for the ride. The stories spill and splash loosely within their confines, the way a story grows between two friends trading ideas in between howls of uproarious laughter. Alan Moore’s built his bones on bringing novelistic structure and filmic voices to the comic medium on a scale that no one had before managed. Everything had to mean something. Here, Moore shakes his beard, and whatever falls out is whatever falls out. Everyone involved comes off as more energized for that spirit — and we benefit. And it’s funny. It’s really fucking funny.
Like most of the things I’ve covered in my Friday Recommendations, there’s not much to go around — maybe 120 or 130 pages of First American, total. But in the twelve issues of Tomorrow Stories and various special editions, you’ve got a great little series that won’t break the bank. Seriously, this stuff is dirt cheap everywhere I look — just waiting for you to find it, like a tab of acid stashed in a library book. Just kidding. First American is way too gleefully stupid to ever have anything to do with libraries.