For "Hercules: The Thracian Wars," one of the flagship titles from Radical Comics, Publisher and President Barry Levine wanted a creator with a spectacular angle for the ancient character-and found him in Steve Moore. The writer's worked in comics for years, getting a little more recognition in the late 1990s from American readers due to his work with Alan Moore (no relation) on some ABC titles including "Tom Strong's Terrific Tales."
In the Admira Wijaya-illustrated "Hercules: The Thracian Wars," Moore takes a radically different approach from what readers have seen with the character before. Moore's Hercules represents a complicated rendition of an anguished warrior. The approach so impressed filmmaker Peter Berg that he now is set to produce and develop a film adaptation based on Moore's scripts for the first series, with Universal Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment on board the project as well.
I talked to Moore about comics, Hercules, and what it's like to be constantly linked to that other Moore.
Radical Publisher Barry Levine said your treatment for "Hercules: The Thracian Wars" blew him away. What was your process for writing that treatment? What kind of research went into it?
Steve Moore: Certain elements of the story came from the original briefing that Barry gave me. He wanted a grittier, more human Hercules, which played down the more mythological aspects and emphasized that of the warrior. After that, I had to go away and think of something that would give Barry what he wanted, while still being the sort of story that I wanted to write. It has to be said that this was right up my street anyway, as I've had a lifelong interest in the ancient world and its mythology.
My first decision was that, within the framework that had been set down, I wanted to do the story as authentically as possible, in a Bronze Age setting with a specific date of shortly before the Trojan War, which is when Hercules is supposed to have lived according to the traditions. Having a house full of books on the subject anyway made the research fairly easy. If we were going to do it "gritty," I wanted to give some idea of the brutality of ancient warfare, rather than a prettified "fantasy movie" version.
Obviously a warrior doesn't fight alone, so my first job was to give him some companions, but only companions who would have been mythologically contemporary with him. For example, there was no point in teaming up Hercules and Achilles, because they were of different generations. So, apart from Meneus, who was invented for the series, all the other characters in Hercules's band are actual legendary characters who would have been alive at the same time, and whose personalities are largely based on what we know of them from their original stories.
The next decision was that, to avoid the more mythological aspects, the easiest thing to do was to take Hercules and his war-band out of Greece. Since we wanted a dark, moody feel to the story, barbarian Thrace was the obvious place to set the action. And then, having gotten the basic ingredients, it was pretty much a case of letting them stew for a couple of weeks. I'm not someone who comes up with instant story notions, I was making the odd note as ideas came to me, quite often while half-awake in bed, until the whole thing just sort of grew together naturally. I used the same method on the outline for the second series, though that required a bit more research, as it is set in ancient Egypt, and I'm less familiar with that than the Greek world.
When most people think of mythology research, the place they start is Edith Hamilton's "Mythology." What books did you find to be the best source of information?
I've never seen Edith Hamilton's book, but modern retellings have never really interested me. I have an enormous library of this sort of material, and over the years I've read virtually all the original source material in translation, such as Homer, Hesiod, Apollodorus, Apollonius and so on, including a lot of the really obscure poets. I know it sounds terribly hard-going, but that's the sort of stuff I read for entertainment. I've written a few non-fiction pieces in this area as well, so most of this material is in my head anyway. When I wanted quick references to check things out while constructing the story, I generally used "The Oxford Classical Dictionary" for historical background and Pierre Grimal's "Dictionary of Classical Mythology" for the characters and story elements.
Thanks to 1950s Hollywood, the Bronze Age has an established standard visual. How did you make sure "Hercules: The Thracian" Wars didn't just repeat those liberties?
Again, this is the sort of thing I've read a great deal about anyway. If you're seriously going to get into the myths, you have to have some idea of the social and historical context as well. I already had an image in my head of what Bronze Age Greece should look like. Then it was a case of finding reference pictures for the artists, either by scanning from books or finding what I wanted on the web, and writing a very detailed script. It didn't always work. In some of the mythological flashback scenes, they slipped in the odd bit of temple architecture that wouldn't have existed until about 700 years later, but there's only so much authenticity you can expect. And, of course, most of the story is set in Thrace, about which very little is known, so that gave us rather more of a free hand.
The emphasis away from Hercules as the solitary figure sets this series apart from other modern renditions. Did you make this decision for the narrative or for realism, or a combination of both?
Probably for both, though I'm not sure it was all a conscious decision, as I tend to be more of an instinctive rather than an analytical writer. I think it basically comes down to the fact that I wanted, as much as possible, to treat Hercules as a real person, rather than some sort of superhero, which is a genre I detest and which, fortunately, I've always managed to avoid writing. Real people, of course, are surrounded by other people, which allows you a much greater scope for character development if they're interacting with one another.
Hercules has had, in the last 50 years, countless adaptations in comics, movies, and on television. Did any of those influence you? Are there any references to "Hercules" in New York, by chance?
No, and no. I saw the Italian Steve Reeves Hercules movies when I was a kid, which look great when you're 10 and have the advantage that, no matter how hammy they are, they do play the story straight. But they have a completely different feel to the sort of grim fatalism I'm bringing to the story. As for the other stuff you mention, I'm afraid it's passed me by. I gave up watching TV and reading comics a long time ago, and for the last 35 years I've watched little else other than Oriental movies. I've never seen "Hercules in New York" and have no idea what it's about; though the whole concept sounds ghastly and, I should think, fairly irrelevant to my story, which is entirely set in 1200 BC. All that aside, I really wouldn't want to write a Hercules story that was influenced by anything else, apart from the ancient material, because I want it to be my story, and as original as possible.
American comic books traditionally have, just like American movies, an eventually upbeat conclusion-or, at least, a lengthy upbeat moment. It doesn't sound like you're going for this sentiment with "Hercules: The Thracian Wars." Have you seen comic audiences getting more receptive to bleaker narratives over the years?
To take the second part of the question first: yes, I think audiences are more receptive to bleaker narratives these days, especially since the business switched over to the direct-sales market. As for traditional upbeat moments or conclusions, without wishing to give anything away, as the story isn't finished yet: no, I don't do "heart-warming Walt Disney feel-good material." This is partly because I come from the British comics tradition, which probably has a harder edge than the American one; partly because I intended the story to be a meditation on inescapable destiny; and partly because when I began the story, I was extremely angry about the Iraq War (and remain so to this day), where in the name of liberation, a hundred thousand innocent civilians got killed. There are oblique references to Iraq in various parts of the first series, and I really wanted to portray war as something awful, bloody and definitely unromantic. So no, Hercules doesn't end up getting married and living happily ever after.
You've been working in comics for a quarter-century now. What's the biggest change you've seen in the industry since you started?
Actually, it's been more than 40 years. I started doing editorial work for the Power Comics Group published by Odhams Press in 1967, and went freelance in 1972, though a few years in the 1990s were spent writing and editing for "Fortean Times" rather than working in comics. Obviously, there've been an awful lot of changes, but it's hard to say which is the biggest.
During my time in the business we've seen the virtual annihilation of the British comics industry. When I started, there were Odhams, Fleetway and DC Thomson, all with their own extensive lines of weekly comics, plus a few independents like Thorpe & Porter and later Quality Comics and Marvel UK. Now there's little more than "2000 AD." Meanwhile, both in the UK and the US, distribution has mainly switched from newsstand to direct sales. The Comics Code Authority is gone, though frankly the distributors have such a tight grip on what's permissible that it hardly seems to have affected mainstream comics.
As for working in the industry-when I started, there were no such things as contracts or creator rights. In the UK at least, that only arrived in the early 1980s when we were doing "Warrior" for Quality Comics. Before that, you just turned in the work, took your (pitifully small) pay, and the publisher owned everything outright. There were no creator credits, either. Mind you, with some of the egos knocking about in the business these days, that might not have been a bad thing. So having broken the shackles like that, I'm astonished that so many people seem to want to put their chains back on again by signing exclusive contracts. To me, the whole essence of the freelance life is that you have multiple opportunities to spread your talents around and do different stuff for different publishers. And if that means that you don't know where your next paycheck is coming from when you've finished your current series, well, that's the adventure. That's what keeps you on your toes, rather than stagnating in a safe job producing some idiotic superhero, month after month.
You've worked for lots of different comic book companies. How have you found the experience at Radical?
It's pretty much like working for any other company. I'm not one to hang about the editorial offices, I just sit here at home and write my stuff, and we communicate mainly by email, so it wouldn't make much difference whether the offices were in London or California. As always, there've been the usual sort of teething troubles you get while you're settling in to working for a new company, but they seem to be sorted out, and I'm happy enough to have signed up for a second series of "Hercules." Mainly, though, I'm much happier working for a small company than a huge conglomerate. There's much more personal involvement, you feel your work is more valued, and if there's anything that needs to be sorted out you can talk to people directly, rather than feeling you're the victim of arbitrary decisions made by faceless management personnel in some other part of the company. And apart from anything else, my current personal circumstances mean that I can't produce work very quickly. Radical is prepared to make allowances for that, which I doubt would be the case with one of the big companies.
The movie version of your "Hercules" was announced. Is this your first experience being adapted for screen?
Actually, it isn't much of an experience for me at all so far, as I know little more about this than what can be found on the Radical website! I'm assured, though, that everyone wants the movie to be a pretty close adaptation of the comic book, which suits me. But the answer to your question is yes and no. Yes, it'll be the first time anyone's wanted to make a large-scale movie based on my work. On the other hand, I found out recently that an amateur outfit called Altered Vistas had made a half-hour computer-animation of the "Abslom Daak, Dalek-Killer" story I wrote 30 years ago for "Dr Who Weekly," which, if it isn't quite as technically accomplished as a big studio production, is still extremely impressive -- if only because of its extraordinary fidelity to the original script, and the fact it's all been done for love rather than money. They're currently starting work on animating the sequel, "Star Tigers," with my full blessing, and I can't wait to see the end result.
Does it bother you, people assuming you're related to Alan Moore?
No, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. Alan's been my closest friend for 40 years and we've known each other since we were teenagers. We work together every now and then, and when we're not doing that we're always discussing our various projects. With a relationship like that, it's not surprising that people get confused. Actually, you should probably be asking if it bothers him, people thinking he's related to an old bozo like me!
"Hercules: The Thracian Wars" collected edition is on sale now from Radical Comics.