Here’s The Story Behind Alan Moore’s Epic Graphic Novel That Never Was
The long-rumored “Twilight of The Superheroes” could have been the masterpiece the genre needed
It was just a rumor, but a persistent one. Whispers in the halls of the DC Comics offices; buzz among fans as they gathered at annual conventions. That the legendary Alan Moore, writer and creator of From Hell and V for Vendetta, had written another masterpiece, something no one had ever seen. They’d heard it would be like Watchmen, only even better. More of Moore: his trademark noir style, novelistic storytelling, violence and grit, and playful intertextual games. Whatever it was, this mystery project would change comics forever—that is, if it actually existed.
For the better part of the late 80s, all comics fans knew was the name: Twilight of the Superheroes.
Then, in the early 90s, someone anonymously posted a file on the still-new internet: TwilightOfTheSuperheroes_djvu.txt.
It began like this:
Twilight of the Superheroes
The Interminable Ramble
An unpublished series proposal for DC Comics by Alan Moore
Was this real? Some clever forgery? The lengthy document went on to lay out a deliriously complicated story, seen by Moore as his follow-up to Watchmen. It would be a complicated crossover of DC’s biggest franchise titles: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and dozens and dozens more, in a dark and twisted saga, set in a ruined future. A saga that would end in total annihilation. In fact, the “interminable ramble” spelled out the deaths of nearly every single beloved DC character.
But why? And how? And would it ever come to pass?
How long would everyone be left “Waiting for Twilight”?
According to one biographer, Alan Moore was the first British graphic novelist to “do prominent work” in America. By the mid-1980s, his gritty style had successfully reinvigorated some of DC Comics’ biggest franchises with one-off stories like Batman: The Killing Joke and What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? His fans bragged they’d been following him since he’d started on Swamp Thing. Others claimed they’d known his stuff since even earlier, obscure comics in UK sci-fi magazines like 2000 AD and Warrior, and other underground zines before that.
Moore was born in 1953 in the poor, working-class neighborhood known as The Boroughs in Northampton. He’d read voraciously as a boy, wolfing down literary classics and issues of The Fantastic Four side-by-side. He hated school and loved LSD, the latter soon leading to his expulsion from the former. He’d later claim that his headmaster called all the other schools to warn them against admitting Moore, who would be “a danger to the moral well-being” of the other students. (A charge that Moore conceded as being “possibly true.”)
While working a series of blue-collar jobs, Moore began writing his own comics under punny pseudonyms like “Curt Vile” and “Jill de Ray.” Eventually he got hired as a writer for comics in bigger British science fiction magazines, bringing his off-brand of dark humor to series like “D.R. and Quinch” which he’s described as being like “Dennis the Menace but giving him thermonuclear capacity.” He seemed to bring an irreverent, apocalyptic, punk aesthetic to everything he touched. Eventually Moore was hired to write for DC Comics in America.
According to Paul Levitz, a DC writer in the 1970s and 80s who later became the company’s president and publisher, by the early 1980s the industry was facing huge changes, and as a result smart, edgy writers like Moore were in high demand.
In the introduction to a new anthology, DC through the ’80s: The End of Eras, Levitz writes, “Comics were dying […] the newsstands of America, which had been comics’ home for so long, were fading away […] the kids who had been the primary audience for comics, were watching more television […] the country was becoming more suburban […] the mom-and-pop retailers who used to be hospitable to comics racks were being replaced by chain stores […] they were getting too expensive (50 cents an issue!). Maybe the stories just weren’t as good as they used to be.”
As comics left the main streets, they moved into specialty shops where they met a far smaller, but dedicated fanbase. The customers weren’t city kids anymore, but suburban young adults, who could get to the comic bookstore without needing a ride from mom or dad. They could spend more, and they liked tracking specific artists and writers they enjoyed.
This is the origin story for the classic 80s/90s “comic book fan”—young men aged 16-24 who’d grown up on lite versions of Superman and Batman but were now ready for something full-flavored. More sophisticated storylines, more graphic sexual and violent content, heroes with deeper flaws, villains whose evil deeds were rooted in more sympathetic motives. And before long the halls of DC Comics began to be flooded by writers who felt the same way, sending the old guard heading for the exits.
Alan Moore arrived at the tail end of what’s now known as the “Bronze Age of Comic Books.” (This period, from about 1970-1985, follows the prior “Silver Age” which spans back to 1956. The “Golden Age” then, covers everything else, back to the original 1938 Action Comics.)
What is now known as the “Modern Age” began with something totally new—a “maxiseries” called Crisis on Infinite Earths. This was a massive storyline involving characters crossing over from what had previously been individual series—something that had not been done before then. In such an “event”, a unifying story plays out inside of many separate series. A plotline beginning in Batman: Detective Comics, might continue inside of Superman: The Man of Steel, or Justice League. This forced readers to stray outside of their favorite series, giving a Wonder Woman fan something new to discuss with a Swamp Thing reader, for instance. This kind of cross-pollination would prove vital in expanding comics readership, and it could also be used in another way: mass extinction.
DC Comics faced a sizable problem. Over the decades, the various characters in all the different DC Comics: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc., had existed in largely separate universes. There were team-up series, like Justice League, where a bunch of heroes joined forces to battle a bigger and badder foe—but those events would not really impact the plots going on back in the heroes’ individual series.
Comics tended to be largely episodic, with each issue focusing on a self-contained story that didn’t often stretch into longer plot arcs.
Crisis on Infinite Earths writer, Marv Wolfman, discussed recognizing the problem as far back as 1981. He’d received a letter from a Green Lantern fan about a recent issue where another character failed to recognize Green Lantern, even though the two of them had met and worked together in an issue three years earlier. Wolfman realized this was an issue endemic to every series at DC. No one had really cared before. Prior to the 1980s, with mostly younger comics fans, sporadically gobbling up whatever looked fun at their local newsstand, it didn’t matter if Green Lantern had occasional amnesia. The comics were never meant to be a continuing story.
But if they were going to satisfy the 16–24-year-olds, and compete with the pull of television’s syndicated cartoon series, comic books had to evolve—and get everyone (literally) on the same page. Instead of hundreds of titles with confusing alternate realities—effectively a multiverse—DC Comics needed to consolidate all their titles into one DC Comics Universe.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was the solution. A complex story involving a cosmic being named Monitor, battling its own anti-matter doppelganger Anti-Monitor, with each recruiting superheroes and supervillains into a war amongst all the different versions of Earth. You might have a Superman from Earth-One, for instance, battling a version of himself from Earth-4, or Earth-S, or Earth-X. The more complicated the story, the more it necessitated re-reading, and endless fan discussion.
And of course there was time-travel involved, and portals between antimatter universes and—well—the important thing for our purposes here is that: a) hundreds of characters were killed off, including all the extraneous versions of those characters; b) so that the surviving versions could co-exist in one single, unified storyline; and c) the whole thing was a massive bestseller that brought tons of new readers to comic books, just as DC had hoped.
Something similar was happening simultaneously over at Marvel Comics, with a cross-over event called Secret Wars that was also incredibly popular. And so, by 1986 there were, at last, two unified Comics universes: DC and Marvel.
Alan Moore’s role in all this came through his position writing for Swamp Thing. The comic had originally been slated for cancellation due to low sales, but Moore rescued the franchise by reinventing the hero. Swamp Thing had previously been a human named Alec Holland who could transform into a monster. Moore rewrote the storyline such that Swamp Thing was born a monster, and never human at all. The grotesque creature’s duty was not to protect humankind but to protect the environment from humankind. Moore had Swamp Thing fall in love with a human woman named Abby, who died, leaving Swamp Thing to descend into a Hell modeled on Dante’s Inferno to save her soul.
This is just one example of Moore’s early ingenuity, rethinking the basic archetypes of superheroes, the kinds of storylines they could carry, and the way that these stories could play off classic (non-graphic) literature.
And it went over well with the new breed of comic book guys, who enjoyed the irreverent challenge to the old stories—and the idea that something generally regarded as “low culture” like a comic book could hold itself up against something as “high” as Dante. It validated the form in new ways, bringing “comics” into the realm of “real” literature.
And Moore was just getting started. In 1986, right on the heels of the success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, he developed Watchmen: an original comic miniseries of such depth and complexity that it would forever raise the bar on what comics could be expected to do. Instead of the usual superheroes with high morality, patriotism, and well… heroics—the characters in Watchmen are costumed vigilantes who satirize (even defile) the idea of traditional comic book superheroes. In the America of Watchmen, superheroes helped the US win the Vietnam War, making South Vietnam the 51st state in the union. Thanks to the heroes, Nixon’s misdeeds in the Watergate Scandal are never exposed, and by the 1980s he is still President (after abolishing the 22nd amendment) as the US approaches World War III with the USSR.
In Watchmen the ostensible heroes are all morally murky, if not just evil. There’s Rorschach, whose mask is an ink blot pattern, and believes all life is just randomness. Or The Comedian, a psychotically violent mashup of Captain America and G. Gordon Liddy (according to Moore). And there’s the Silk Spectre, who is actually the daughter of the original Silk Spectre, who The Comedian tried to rape. (It later turns out he’s actually Silk Spectre II’s father, from a previous, consensual encounter.) And don’t forget Doctor Manhattan, a giant blue naked guy with all the powers of God who chooses to hang out on Mars rather than interfere in the lives of Earth’s mortals. One of the heroes, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, walks around dressed like Alexander the Great [SPOILERS AHEAD] and ends up transporting a giant alien squid to destroy most of New York City in an attempt to get humanity to walk back from the edge of nuclear annihilation and work together to battle a new (manufactured) interdimensional threat.
Not only was Watchmen darker, more violent, and more morally-cynical than anything seen before, but it was highly-structured in a way that had not been seen before, with recurring visual motifs, and even a comic-book-within-a-comic-book called Tales of the Black Freighter that one character is reading. Borrowing techniques from the all-text novel, Watchmen again raised the bar for the “graphic novel” (a term that Moore allegedly dislikes, however—preferring to stick with “comic books”.)
Watchmen highly-rewards, if not demands, intensive re-reading, so that all its puzzles and subtleties and ambiguities can be sifted through. It’s so complicated and so rich and nuanced that it was later listed on TIME’s 100 Best Novels in the English language, the sole representative of graphic novels, sandwiched alphabetically between Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry and before White Noise by Don DeLillo. As it became a new highwater mark for graphic literature, it also became its first real placeholder in the world of “real” literature.
Which brings us at last, to Twilight of the Superheroes, and the leaked text file that set the internet ablaze in the early 1990s. (The original file can still be read in full in The Internet Archive, a library resource that now oversees the Wayback Machine, which is how I first encountered it, when I was looking for some background on the Deborah Eisenberg short story of the same name.)
The “interminable ramble” begins with Moore saying that after his recent conversations with Paul (Levitz) he has been thinking about “the perfect mass crossover” that could build on what had been done in Crisis on Infinite Earths in a commercial sense: push readers to try out new titles, launch some new series, and reinvigorate some of the older ones. This, he said, had to be done “in a manner that was not obviously crassly exploitative so as to insult the reader’s intelligence.” Moore saw potential for posters, role-playing games, toys, merchandise, all of it. He proposed that if the central story was solid enough it might translate to “other media” in ways that could satisfy a “diehard superhero junkie.” He confessed to still being “intoxicated” by the success of Watchmen and eager to do it all again.
Done properly, Moore argued, a crossover like this could continue unifying the DC titles and raise the superheroes in it to a mythic status. Done badly, he said, the assemblage of characters would become “banal” and lead to a cheapening all around, requiring “greater acts of debasement in order to attract reader attention, more deaths to appease the arena crowd element in the fan marketplace, eventually degenerating into a geek show.”
Moore then criticized the way things had been handled in Crisis on Infinite Earths. He did not like that, by the end of the saga, all of the extraneous Earths and the versions of characters in them, were just erased. “Readers of long-standing” he argued, were left feeling betrayed, that not only were the stories they’d been so invested in now finished, but they’d been left irrelevant. And his concern for the reader went deeper still:
I firmly believe that both this and the current seeming obsession with a strict formal continuity are some sort of broad response from an audience whose actual lives are spent living in a continuity far more uncertain and complex than anything ever envisaged by a comic book. I believe that one of the things that the comic fan is looking for in his multi-title crossover epics is some sense of a sanely ordered cosmos not offered to him or her by the news headlines or the arguments of their parents over breakfast.
What Moore proposed now, was a story that he believed could both provide that stability and satisfy the aforementioned creative and commercial requirements. It would also give the individual title writers plenty of leeway to pursue their own stories, instead of forcing them to “toe the line” in the service of a master plan. And it would reinforce the mythic status of the superheroes by connecting them to a theme of myth itself: Ragnarök, the Armageddon of Norse Mythology, a.k.a. “the twilight of the Gods.”
The tale would begin with agents from twenty or thirty years in the future coming back in time to warn the present-day heroes (led by a conman/magician from Swamp Thing named John Constantine) of an impending and terrible Twilight—a horrific “Gotterdammerung” of chaos and violence. The present-day heroes are warned, but Moore felt that some could choose not to concern themselves with the prophecy, thus providing an “out” to writers on series not interested in this adventure… these writers could just have their characters proceed as if all was still normal. Their stubborn inaction would then have an “implied relevance” on the stories of the characters busy trying to turn the tide on the awful future.
Moore reflected that, “one of the things that prevents superhero stories from ever attaining the status of true modern myths or legends is that they are open ended.” Because a superhero just lives on and on (assuming they’re commercially successful) they never have the poignancy granted by resolution. Superman and Batman could never be Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood because their stories have no “capstone.” A legend must be mortal. This is why the Norse people, in their myths, imagined a Ragnarök—some future time at which all the Gods would fight one another and kill each other off. (And the same can be said of other religions with end-time prophecies: The Book of Daniel in Judaism, The Book of Revelations in Christianity, the Day of Judgment, al-Qiyāmah, in Islam, to mention just a few.)
By casting ahead to some bleak and bloody Twilight future, Moore argued, and showing the definitive ends of all these superheroes, the intervening time would take on even greater importance. To his mind, Twilight would inject a whole new importance into all the comics DC put out over the coming thirty years in real time. He envisioned fans reading everything in obsessive detail, hunting for signs that the storylines were, or were not, heading towards Twilight. The dream, Moore felt, would be creating an arc that left all readers in a perpetual state of waiting, with skeptics and believers all arguing over the coming end of days.
So what does that look like? In the Twilight future, superheroes lord over the Earth, not by choice but because “various social institutions started to crumble in the face of accelerating social change, leaving the superheroes in the often unwilling position of being a sort of new royalty.” Eight “houses” of superheroes now rule in a sort of global feudal system. Rather than envision the future as having been ruined by nuclear warfare, (already becoming cliched, Moore felt) humanity would find itself “faced with the equally inconceivable and terrifying notion that there might not be an apocalypse. That mankind might actually have a future, and might thus be faced with the terrifying prospect of having to deal with it rather than allowing himself the indulgence of getting rid of that responsibility with a convenient mushroom cloud…”
Instead, the horror of the future is that everything from “family structure to the economy is decentralizing” and everyone lives “in a constant and incomprehensible state of flux and chaos […] caught in one of those violent historical niches where one mode of society changes to another, such as the industrial revolution, for example.”
(It’s worth noting here that, thirty years in the future, as Moore proposed, from 1990, puts the Twilight at pretty much right now.)
There would be the House of Steel (run by Superman), the House of Thunder (Captain Marvel, then a DC property, and male—yes, I know, it’s confusing), the House of the Titans (with the “remnants of” the Teen Titans), The House of Mystery (it’s a mystery!), The House of Secrets (super-villains including Lex Luthor, The Joker, and Catwoman), The House of Justice (Aqualad and Wonder Girl—the former Wonder Woman now being Superwoman after marrying Superman), the House of Tomorrow (something to do with time travel), The House of Lanterns (various Green Lanterns).
Then you’ve got some scattered unaffiliated Heroes including John Constantine and maybe Batman. (“Nobody’s actually seen him for years. He’s rumored to be around, he’s rumored to be active, and rumored to be doing something, but nobody knows what or even really if. He might have died years ago.”)
Everyone else falls into the “Drunks, Hookers, and Panhandlers” category, which Moore describes as a host of aging superheroes who hang out in the “barrios” of Gotham and Metropolis, turning tricks and doing whatever they can to get by.
The plot itself is a hell of a tangle, which Moore promises will eventually get better when broken down, issue-by-issue. He charts out how the superheroes embarked on a genocidal slaughter of all the supervillains, leaving everyone kind of uncomfortable afterwards. But there’s some palace intrigue: Superboy is set to wed Captain Marvel’s daughter (Mary Marvel) which would consolidate power between the houses of Steel and Thunder, which has alarmed everyone else—including some alien forces “conspiring out on the moon of Mars.” This all escalates into a surprise invasion that, I kid you not, revolves around Captain Marvel in his human form being into S&M and, thus sadly, being gagged during a crucial moment and unable to turn into Captain Marvel to save the day.
And so pretty much every single superhero dies, and most of humanity too, but then somehow this all ushers in the dawn of a new Utopian era where a smaller, highly-factioned America will be run by… Batman (he is alive!). Cool.
Anyway, I seem to have gone on far longer than I intended, so I better wrap this up. I’ll be looking forward with interest to hearing what any of you have to say about all this when you’ve had a chance to read it. If any sections are incomprehensible and need clarifying then please give me a call.
I’ve read the “interminable ramble” many times, and I’ll confess I can’t make a whole lot of sense out of it. There’s a whole huge thing I’m not even going into about a villain called Time Trapper who may have captured the universe and put everything into some kind of temporal pocket called “the flux.” A vast number of the central characters in the proposal are heroes from the 80s and 90s I don’t know enough about. But the biggest issue is that the whole plot doesn’t seem to actually live up to Moore’s high-minded philosophies about legends and apocalyptic capstones that Moore started out with.
Reading the ramble, you can’t help but think it might have been a disaster—except, well, he’s Alan Moore. The greatest of the all-time greats. Remember, the plot of Watchmen, revolves around someone teleporting a giant alien squid into Manhattan and killing hundreds of thousands of people. And it doesn’t just work—it’s totally brilliant.
And so, I’m left, like many fans over the decades, thinking that actually Twilight of the Superheroes would have been incredible—somehow. Moore would have made it incredible—in a way that only he could.
Which is exactly why it has never been done and will never be done.
Unfortunately, the “interminable ramble” was composed right at the beginning of the end for Moore’s time with DC Comics. There was already some acrimony over merchandising profits from Watchmen, and this was swelling into a larger crisis for Moore over who really had creative control over his masterpiece.
At this time in the comics world, a writer like Moore, hired to work on some long-running title like Swamp Thing, would be paid for that work but have no creative rights or ownership over the end-results—this all remained with DC. When Moore, for instance, created the character of John Constantine in issue #37 of Swamp Thing, he would not then later profit off Constantine’s success, even going off to lead in his own series, Hellblazer. (Later made into the film starring Keanu Reeves).
With Watchmen, since Moore had created all the characters, both he and the artists (Dave Gibbons and John Higgins) had gotten a share of the profits, but the intellectual property itself and all subsidiary rights still belonged to DC Comics. Moore’s contract stipulated that the rights would revert to him after the comic stopped being printed. But because the project was such a hit, DC never stopped printing it.
Slowly, Moore realized that DC could retain permanent control over the intellectual property, that meant they could make sequels, use his characters elsewhere, authorize foreign editions, sell the film and television rights, even build a theme park ride if they wanted to—without any approval needed from Moore.
Which is exactly what happened.
Today, Watchmen has been made into a 2009 film by Zach Snyder, a popular HBO miniseries starring Regina King, which won 11 Emmy Awards, and a video game: Watchmen: The End is Nigh. Moore has completely refused to participate in these ventures. He has, in fact, routinely spoken out against anyone adapting his former works for the screen, and even insisted that his name be removed from the credits entirely—he is usually listed as just “The Original Writer.” Even when the Wachowskis produced an adaptation of V for Vendetta, Moore derided the film for avoiding terms like “anarchy” or “fascism” and removing much of the political context of the original.
In adapting graphic novel work to the screen, Moore’s argued, the original “possibilities” of the medium are lost. “If we only see comics in relation to movies, then the best that they will ever be is films that do not move. I found it, in the mid-80s, preferable to concentrate on those things that only comics could achieve. The way in which a tremendous amount of information could be included visually in every panel, the juxtapositions between what a character was saying and what the image that the reader was looking at would be. So in a sense … most of my work from the 80s onwards was designed to be unfilmable.”
In the 35 years since its publication, Watchmen has continued to sell reliably—in fact, in 2019 it was back on the NY Times Bestseller List again at the time of the HBO show’s release. While Moore has earned reported millions in royalties, he also estimates he’s turned down millions more by refusing to sign off on the various adaptations.
And because he generated the idea for Twilight of the Superheroes while still writing for DC, and the storyline involves, of course, a host of DC’s other properties, it has been left in limbo. Moore and DC have at this point been in a feud spanning thirty years, it’s essentially unimaginable that they’d be able to come together and ever make the “interminable ramble” into a real graphic novel.
In the mid-90s, Mark Waid and Alex Ross collaborated on a series called Kingdom Come for DC that attempted to match the scope of Watchmen and explicitly follow the spark from Twilight of the Superheroes. It also begins in a dark future where superheroes have lost touch with their former ideals. (In one memorable scene, Superman just outright murders The Joker on his way to stand trial for a mass murder that took the life of Lois Lane.) There’s a similar giant war between a reassembled Justice League and some aliens and there are nuclear warheads and something called metahumans—but rather than end with all the heroes dying, we see Superman restored to his former ideals, and he and the other heroes decide to hang up their capes and live ordinary human lives. The series proved popular but fell far short of Moore’s vision for Twilight. For one thing, it was put out as part of DC’s Elseworlds line of comic books that were explicitly meant to exist outside of the unified canon—so it in no way was meant to reflect the actual future in store for these characters.
Thirty years later, Superman and Batman and all the rest are still alive and kicking. Many of the issues around creator rights that Moore experienced led other writers to leave DC and Marvel and found their own independent publishers like Image and Dark Horse with their own wildly-popular original titles like Spawn and Hellboy.
In some ways the comic book world has been again revitalized, with new fans coming out to the now-struggling comic bookstores thanks to the constant churning-out of new film and television adaptations. Likely to Moore’s horror, we now live in an era of not just maxi-series comics but maxi-series movies: where Justice League and Avengers fans can nerd-out over complex webs of visual media properties forming wild, intersecting narratives. And it isn’t just glossy blockbusters like The Avengers films making waves at the box office. Along with the aforementioned critical praise for Watchmen on HBO, the 2019 Todd Phillips film Joker, based on the Batman villain, was nominated for 11 Oscars, with Joaquin Phoenix winning Best Actor. Thanks to the success of Hollywood’s obsession with the old comics stories, there is a whole new generation of ardent fans, and the stories are changing and diversifying in kind. Today comics fans can spend their time with Miles Morales, a young Spiderman who is Black and Latinx, and a bisexual Superman. And versions of the Guy Fawkes mask that Moore created for V for Vendetta can be seen today on the faces of protesters worldwide.
Meanwhile, in the years since breaking with DC, Moore has worked on numerous titles, both at his own independent companies or at places like Image Comics and America’s Best Comics. He’s written more popular original series like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, written a novel, Jerusalem, set in Northampton, where he still lives. He’s even made a movie of his own, if an intentionally low-budget one, called Jimmy’s End, also set in Northampton.
There is just one development that has come with Twilight of the Superheroes, a small one, but important. Until recently DC Comics had never verified the authenticity of the “interminable ramble” that went up on the internet decades ago. But this changed just this year, with the publication of a new anthology: DC through the ’80s: The End of Eras. In it, Paul Levitz has quietly reprinted the text file in full as a conclusion to the collection. “To top it off,” he writes, “we leave you with a previously unpublished treat: Alan Moore’s treatment, written between 1986 and 1987, for a never-realized post-Crisis event series to be called Twilight, whose plot sent a few too many members of the DC pantheon into the eternal night…”
I’m sure Moore is thrilled.