Alan Moore is the guy who just about anyone who has ever read a comic book agrees to be the best writer in the form’s entire history.
INTERVIEW BY JAMES KNIGHT, PHOTOS BY JONATHAN WORTH AND JOSE VILLARRUBIA
Alan Moore is the guy who just about anyone who has ever read a comic book agrees to be the best writer in the form’s entire history. In the 80s, he was the person who almost singlehandedly made it OK for otherwise cowardly grown-ups to admit that they liked funny books.
A proud son of Northampton, England, who still lives near the area he grew up in, Moore cut his teeth in the early 1980s at 2000 AD, the leading British comic factory of science fiction and fantasy. His Judge Dredd strips reimagined the character with hitherto unexplored complexities. His own creation, Halo Jones, was the first title in the medium not to portray a female character as a big-boobed superlady or a victim.
By the mid-80s, Moore had revolutionized American comics, first by jump-starting stagnant DC title Swamp Thing, turning it into a book of existential examination with ecological concerns, and then by creating Watchmen, which was the first comic to really turn the whole superhero trope on its ear, and which of course led to an abysmally terrible movie last year (which Moore, thankfully, disavows).
Several legal tussles over ownership and rights to his creations later, Moore started his own line, only half-jokingly entitled America’s Best Comics. From 1991 to 1996, he produced From Hell, his own grim and beautiful take on the Jack the Ripper story. It, too, was made into a shitty movie that Moore disavows. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman series began in 1999 and has become a mammoth, sprawling beast of a book that happily mixes fictional and imagined history with versions of our own reality. Again: shitty movie, Moore disavows. In V for Vendetta, Moore gave us his take on totalitarianism. And yet again, itty-shay ovie-may, Oore-may isavows-day.
In recent years, Moore has produced a formally complex novel, Voice of the Fire (1996), and a long-form poem that deals with girls who like girls and guys who like guys called The Mirror of Love (2004). He also published 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom (2009), which examined pretty much what the title suggests, and Lost Girls (2006), which he created with Melinda Gebbie and which involves Wendy from Peter Pan, Alice from the Alice in Wonderland books, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz having lots of fairly explicit adventures. It’s a real hoot.
Moore is currently working on Dodgem Logic, an underground magazine; his second novel, Jerusalem; and a guide to magic. You see, Moore is a practicing magician (not the top-hat-and-bunny-kind). We recently called him at his home in Northampton, and after he assured us that he had a cup of tea and “as many more cups on the way as it takes,” it became apparent that Mr. Moore was willing to talk to us for quite a long time about his work and his ideas. And yes, it was pretty much magic.
Vice: Dodgem Logic is your new thing. Why don’t you tell us about that to begin?
Alan Moore: Dodgem Logic is an aggressively random collision of all sorts of things, from absurdist pieces of fiction by Steve Aylett to new bits of work by Savage Pencil and Kevin O’Neill. Aesthetically and in terms of form it came from a fascination with the underground press, which is a culture that dates back to before the printed press itself, but which came to popular fruition in the 1960s and 1970s when it was a vital part of the counterculture.
What were the big underground-press entities in the UK back then?
The main papers here were the International Times and Oz, which started out as a satire magazine in Australia and then moved here, where it became a much more controversial and psychedelic affair. Those were intoxicating times and it was the underground press that acted as the glue that kept that whole element of society together and in touch with each other. Without those papers, you would have just had a few people who wore similar clothes, liked similar music, and took similar drugs. You would have had no coherent political or cultural discourse.
And Dodgem Logic is meant to be a continuation of that tradition?
We decided to make Dodgem Logic a very brightly colored, 48-page magazine that is trying to reinvent the notion of underground publishing for the 21st century. We were constantly trying to leave it with some rough edges. We didn’t want it to be slick because there can be something intimidating about slick. It can put up a barrier between the magazine and its audience. We’ve gone for a deliberately rough look.
It is fairly cut-and-paste in places, which makes it seem like a hybrid between an underground paper and a zine.
I take that as a compliment. Fanzines used to be such a vital part of the culture that I grew up in, from the poetry fanzines of the 1960s to the comic-book, science-fiction, and fantasy fanzines in the 1970s that produced so much of the talent that now dominates the comic and science-fiction genres. They were incredibly productive little publications and they contained such a lot of energy. Perhaps that came from how easy they were to produce. They were nowhere as easy as they would be to make these days, but now that all the technology is here to make something far more ambitious than we ever dreamed possible, the impetus has disappeared. Perhaps the degree of passion that was put into something like Sniffin’ Glue or any of those zines associated with the punk movement does in fact exist now, but online. I don’t know. I may sound old-fashioned, but I still believe that there will always be a difference between something that you look at on a screen and something that you can hold in your hand.
Physical things are better. They’re more real.
There is more of a sense of an artifact that is part of a community and part of a culture.
A general dissatisfaction with government and the inexorable decline of civilization, as well as a concern with the erosion of local community and culture, is a recurring theme in your work, from Swamp Thing to Watchmen and beyond. Dodgem Logic seems like a more direct means of addressing those issues, as opposed to the more oblique method of tackling them via comics.
To tell the truth, I am pretty much out of comics. I am pressing on with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and I am drawing some strips for Dodgem Logic, but I am detached from the comics industry. I no longer consider myself a part of it.
Could the things that you are tackling with Dodgem Logic be done in comics?
Yes, they could be addressed in comic form. However, while doing that might delight my comic-book audience, it wouldn’t be addressing the wider world, which is where these issues need to be. I should point out that Dodgem Logic isn’t a magazine specifically about Northampton. That just happens to be where I and some of the contributors are from. However, we look at it from the point of view that Northampton is in the exact center of the country geographically, economically, and politically. It is a fairly good model representation of an everytown. The high streets are being boarded up, the people are being abused by the council, and there is garbage everywhere.
What prompted you to address these issues so directly now? It’s not like we lacked for social problems in the 80s.
A couple of years ago I was contacted by a group of ex-young offenders who had been working on music down in the Burrows area of Northampton. That is where I was born, where I grew up, and where most of my forthcoming novel is set. They had decided that they wanted to do a film about this deprived and neglected area. Since they knew that I came from there, they asked me if maybe I’d like to be interviewed for the film. They were actually working with the Central Museum in Northampton. I went down there, met them, and we got on very well. I wanted to stay in touch with them beyond the duration of that initial project, so I went down every week to the offices of a local community-support organization called CASPA that was doing brilliant work in the area. I met up with the boys and their wrangler, who was a wonderful young woman called Lucy, and I’d inevitably tell them about the local scene and the underground culture and arts clubs that were around when I was growing up that had done so much to shape me into the person that I am today. I would also tell them about how we’d produce magazines and fanzines and hold poetry readings and things like that. I’m sure it was very boring for them hearing all these stories, but the ideas seemed to stick. They decided to produce a magazine of their own, which I contributed to. Both myself and the boys wanted to talk about some of the genuine problems that afflicted that area and how it was a shame that we probably couldn’t really address them in the magazine because it was council-funded. We discussed the possibility of doing an independent magazine and decided to give it a go. The issues seemed so important to the people of that area that we couldn’t keep them from the local community. I wrote an article that was called “The Destructors.” It was about an old incinerator that was in the Burrows area. It was where, in days gone by, the entire city would bring its rubbish and crap to be disposed of.
Right, which is a telling detail.
It gave a pretty clear message as to what the council thought of people who lived in that area, and while the incinerator was torn down in the 1930s, that message remains applicable to the area today. It is where the council sends things that it doesn’t want to have to deal with: immigrant groups, ex-convicts, and people who have been in care homes. All the problematic people are shoved down into this neighborhood, often in accommodations that have been condemned by the fire services. Horrific things happen there every day.
And did the council end up blocking that piece?
Yes. We were told that we could not publish the article as it was critical of the council, so Lucy and I worked it out that she could drop down to three days a week at CASPA and spend the other two days working on an independent magazine with me. The council swiftly told her that if she was going to spend two days a week working on an independent magazine then she wouldn’t have her job at the council on the other three days, at which point I decided that I’d had enough and I invited Lucy to work on Dodgem Logic full-time. The issues we are talking about are important, and the magazine offers a place where these things can be discussed. We’re not bound by any constraint and we can say whatever we want. However, we don’t just want to depress the hell out of people, so we have tried to get as much stuff in there as we can that is genuinely entertaining, as well as the social and political. These are strategies for getting people through difficult times—give them the information that they need, but also give them something to cheer them up.
It’s a good cause.
I hadn’t done much more than pass through that area for many years. Meeting the good people who lived there in this rotten situation actually made me decide that I wanted to do something focused on that area. The Burrows is in the top 2 percent of deprivation in the United Kingdom. There are areas like it all over the country, but they are swept under the carpet. I also feel an emotional attachment to the area, which I’ve always had, and I saw an opportunity to produce something beautiful and useful out of that environment while at the same time creating a model for other areas like it.
You have advocated anarchy both in your work and personally in the past. Would that be your answer to the social problems discussed in Dodgem Logic?
Well, in the second issue I will actually be writing an article introducing anarchy and explaining how it could practically be applied to our current situation. So, yes. One of the things that I will be looking at is the principle of the Athenian lottery and the concept of sortition. Sortition basically dictates that on any issue that needs to be settled on a national or administrative level, you appoint a jury by lottery. They can come from anywhere within the culture and they are appointed purely at random. The pros and cons of the case are then presented to the jury, which they then listen to, debate, and vote on. After the decision, they are no longer part of the jury. They melt back into society, and for the next issue another jury is appointed. That system seems to me like it might be approaching something like democracy, which is something that we do not have at the moment. The word “democracy” comes from “demos,” the people, and “cratos,” to rule—“the people rule.” It doesn’t say anything about the elected representatives of the people ruling, which is the system that we have at the moment. By moving to something closer to sortition, we would create a system safe from many of the abuses of our current model of government. It is quite difficult to buy people’s favor if you don’t know who the people you need to be buttering up are going to be. It would also be difficult for the temporary ruling body to act in their own interest, as it would make more sense for them to act in the interest of the society that they would be returning to.
This is interesting. It has elements of anarchy and democracy in it.
Yes, it would square the circle between the ideas of anarchy and government. My definition of anarchy is the Greek one: no leaders. It is difficult to think of an ordered society that conforms to that ideal, and yet with the Athenian lottery you wouldn’t have leaders, you would have individual people making balanced decisions. It would take an enormous amount of constitutional change, but I like putting the idea out there so that it is a possibility and something to be discussed. Our current form of government clearly isn’t working, and we can’t just keep trying to make quick fixes on a model that is inherently flawed. It might be the time for a new model rather than putting continual patches on the radiator of the old Model T Ford that has come to the end of its natural lifetime.
Will you be tackling these themes through your fiction? I ask because Dodgem Logic deals with your local environment very directly, and your forthcoming novel is also set in the area, as was your first.
To a certain degree. Both methods complement each other. Dodgem Logic and Jerusalem essentially deal with the same neighborhood and territory, albeit in wildly different ways. Reading an issue of Dodgem Logic will be a very different experience from reading a chapter or two of Jerusalem. Dodgem Logic is me trying to do something intelligent yet accessible. Jerusalem—I don’t care if anyone likes it or not. I am just trying to do the best possible piece of writing that I can. Jerusalem is between myself and the world. If nobody reads it, that’s a problem for me, whereas Dodgem Logic is important in a different way. It is important in terms of the issues that it raises about the area, and those are issues I want people to hear about. They are both attempts to reinvigorate and reinvent that neighborhood in different contexts. Dodgem Logic is attempting to literally and practically reinvigorate the area and give something back to its people. Jerusalem is more akin to what Iain Sinclair achieved with his wonderful book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. He captured the rich snow globe of the Hackney that was vanishing under his feet. He managed to get all of the broad characters and lost eras captured in that book before they are flattened and steam-rolled over to make way for the Olympic Village. With fiction, you have a means—perhaps the only true means—to either resurrect or preserve the places that are going to disappear if not today, then tomorrow.
The concept of preserving the past through fiction is one that you embrace in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Every cell is crammed with tons of historical and cultural references.
With the League, which by the way I can tell you that I have just finished writing book 3 as of today, we are attempting to create, through fiction, a cultural Noah’s Ark within which all of the great writers and the great fictions that Kevin and myself feel are worthy of preserving can be kept alive for a little bit longer before they sink in the depths of ignorance.
The League exists in a strange space between fiction and reality.
Absolutely. We have a very well-defined reality and it is something that gets stronger as the story goes on. It has probably got to be, by definition, the single biggest continuity in literature of all time because it has all of the characters’ individual continuities subsumed within it.
There are so many fictional characters and their histories in the League, it’s impressive that it’s all kept cohesive.
We are trying to fit all of these fictional inspirations from certain eras into our final continuity, so you have a world where the Nazis did invade and Fu Manchu was real, but at the same time it mirrors our own world and our own world’s development. It may be a distorted glass, but it helps order our perception of our own world. It is like a dream glass. Our reality wasn’t like that of the League’s, but it might have been what we were dreaming of in our fictions and in ourselves. It allows us to see what might have been and what we might have aspired to. It is the other half of the story.
And there is actual history in the series too, but that in itself is a kind of fiction. Then there is the kind of history presented in our art, books, and literature. Which, in a peculiar and psychological sense, is truer and more dependable than supposedly factual, conventional history, which might not in fact be true in any sense at all. Throughout the League we have established a sense that fiction is in fact the bedrock that mankind is standing upon and that our real world is ultimately based upon fiction.
How do you continue to shove so many literary and cultural references into the League?
They are my interests and Kevin’s interests and a result of the research that we did when we hit upon the concept. Then we started to think seriously about what would happen if this were a story in which everything from the world of fiction could be included. This meant that it would need its own geography, which we dealt with in the appendix to the second volume. It would also need its own history, which was dealt with in The Black Dossier. For example, we didn’t have Adolf Hitler in our fictional reality, we had Adenoid Hynkel from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In our reality, the M figure, who is the leader of MI5, turns out to be Harry Lime from The Third Man, which was written by Graham Greene, who based that character upon his lifelong friend and a real spy who defected to the Soviet Union, a man named Kim Philby. And then Harry Lime, we decided to just make that a pseudonym for Robert Sherry, who was one of the characters who attended Greyfriars School in the Billy Bunter books.
We then decided to make George Orwell’s Big Brother into Harry Wharton, who was the leader of the gang at Greyfriars. We also turned Greyfriars into a British public school that was recruiting for the spy service, which in turn fades nicely into real history. What clinched it was discovering that there had been a brief spat between Frank Richards, who had written the Billy Bunter stories, and George Orwell, who had written an essay about how the Bunter books represented everything that was bad about the British Empire. Frank Richards disastrously attempted to write a riposte to Orwell, where he replied to the accusations that he portrayed foreigners as being in some way comical simply by saying: “They are.” That link between reality, fiction, and the fiction being discussed in reality makes our uses all the more piquant.
The League and V for Vendetta both portray fascist dystopias. Do you ever fear that the fictional futures you have created may come to pass in your lifetime?
No. I could of course be completely wrong, and I do think that fascism is still set to cause us a lot of trouble, but I genuinely think that it comes from a place of such ignorance that it cannot adequately cope with the realities of the 21st century. It is too simple a concept and it lacks the complexity necessary to deal with the fairly chaotic daily realities of our current situation. It is only really effective on a thuggish street level, which can cause trouble for marginalized minority groups. That is a terrible reality for a lot of people, but as a political force, fascists cannot be taken seriously. I agree with [comedian] Reginald D. Hunter, who says, “You have to let the fascists talk.” Allowing them to speak in public will do them no good at all since their voice is so shrill, unpleasant, and off-putting that I don’t think it will in any way aid their electoral prospects. If you attempt to silence them, you allow them to claim oppression by the liberal elite.
What can we expect from Jerusalem? Will it pick up the themes dealt with in Voice of the Fire?
Jerusalem will certainly have elements in common with Voice of the Fire and there will still be elements of formal experimentation, but it will not be quite the same structurally. Jerusalem will be divided into three books. It will hopefully come in one volume with three parts. The first part will be reminiscent of Voice of the Fire in that it will jump about from character to character in different times in the third-person past tense. The second book involves a continuous linear narrative from chapter to chapter but does peculiar things with language and perspective, and it’s certainly where some of the more fantastic elements of the novel take place. It is rather akin to a mad children’s story due to the majority of the protagonists either being children or the ghosts of dead children. Part 2 also involves a working-class paradise with working-class angels who play billiards with human souls, which is an idea I am keen on. The third part, which is currently about nine chapters from completion, is the most experimental and demented piece of writing I have ever done. Thus far it is all in the present tense and each chapter is written in a wildly different style. The chapter that I have just finished is entitled “Round the Bend” and it deals with the St. Andrew’s hospital, which is a marvelous place where my wife and I had our wedding. Its patients have included Spike Milligan; Dusty Springfield; Patrick Stewart; Sir Malcolm Arnold the composer; J.K. Stephen, the Jack the Ripper suspect; and Lucia Joyce.
For our readers who don’t know, she was the daughter of James Joyce.
She spent 35 years there as a mental patient. The chapter I have just finished involves Lucia Joyce wandering around the grounds of the hospital while she is also wandering in her mind, where she is meeting other patients from other times who she could not possibly physically meet. It is a hallucinatory tour around the hospital grounds and around Lucia’s mind, and it is all written in what I am sure is a lousy attempt at her father’s language, which takes you through this angelic state that Lucia is in. William Blake is another figure that is of course hanging over Jerusalem, even though he doesn’t directly appear in it, as well as John Bunyan, who does. They both helped inspire the visionary aspects of the novel. The Lucia Joyce chapter took me forever to write.
Is your book on magic still in the works?
It certainly is. Once I’ve finished the final book of the League and Jerusalem it will be time to tackle that.
What is it about magic that you find so interesting?
Magic to me offers a new perspective with which to look at the world, your life, and reality, as well as a new approach to your relationship with your own consciousness.
It kind of gets classified along with New Age stuff, so it’s hard for a lot of people to even consider.
I was initially very skeptical about magic due to the enormous number of idiots associated with it. However, science cannot explain or rationalize the concept of consciousness because it cannot replicate it in a laboratory. That leaves the single biggest area of our experience of the world unexplained. With magic, all sorts of possibilities are offered as to what consciousness might be, what areas of consciousness might have strange qualities, and what might be practical applications for those qualities.
It used to be that intellectuals and philosophers could be openly interested in magic without getting ridiculed.
Magic is simply a way of exploring the world. It involves following concepts that certain individuals have been exploring since humanity’s inception. Some of them were charlatans, some of them were deluded maniacs or attention seekers, but some of them are the pillars upon which our entire reality is based. Paracelsus basically put forward the concepts of modern medicine, as well as being the first person to explore the concept of the unconscious—centuries before Freud or Jung. He was also a magician. He wouldn’t have used that term himself. He probably would have thought of himself as a natural philosopher—
Maybe we need to go back to that term. But please go on.
Many of the cornerstones of our culture have roots in the occult. The earliest writers and artists came from shamanic culture, and science comes from alchemy. Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Einstein apparently died with a copy of Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine on the corner of his desk, and there are certainly similarities between that work and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, magic tends to be viewed as this deranged relation that we don’t want to bring up this far along in the advancement of our culture.
What led you to write a book on magic?
The idea came about when I decided, along with my magic partner Steve Moore, that it was time to lay our cards on the table and explain what magic was, how to do it, and why you probably should learn about it from a book that wasn’t hiding behind pseudo-creepy imagery or incomprehensible occult jargon.