Alan Moore, between Watchmen, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, redefined an entire literary genre before abandoning it out of frustration. In a rare interview, the author talks about his new collection of fiction, Illuminations, the fate of his work in Hollywood and how it feels to be misunderstood.
Alan Moore, perhaps the greatest comic book writer ever, does not give many interviews. 'No offence, but I'm not in the habit of publicising my work,' he told me from his home in Northampton, in the English East Midlands, during one of the two Zoom interviews we did in September, around the time of Queen Elizabeth II's death. Both times he wore a red jumper and smoked a huge rolled cigarette that made his presence felt on the screen from time to time through large clouds of smoke. Behind the sofa he was sitting on were reproductions of the Enochian Tables, texts of a 16th-century form of magic founded by the occultist John Dee. 'In this way,' Moore explained to me, 'he was convinced that he was able to communicate with a series of entities that he was forced to describe as angels, because to describe them otherwise would probably condemn him to the stake'.
In the early 1980s, when Moore made his debut in the American comics industry by taking charge of the Swamp Thing series for DC Comics, he immediately made the medium more literary and expressive with a revitalising injection of postmodern techniques that offered characters a self-awareness and human dimension that previously did not exist in the superhero realm. In the years that followed, he created some of the most enduring works that have ever graced comic book art: Miracleman, born from an obscure British copy of 1950s Captain Marvel DC and transposed, in an exemplary and convincing manner, to Thatcher's England; Watchmen, a nightmarish parable that imagines how a group of masked vigilantes would behave in the real world (not very well, it turns out); V for Vendetta, set in a post-Atomic War London in which the government has descended into outright fascism and spawned the preconditions for an anarchist revolution (nb. these albums popularised the mask of Guy Fawkes, a contemporary symbol of dissent); From Hell, a meticulously researched account of the Jack the Ripper case and the Whitechapel murders; and finally, the late-period masterpieces Neonomicon and Providence, where it is speculated that the mythological Cthulhu, the universe in which HP Lovecraft's horror fiction was set, was not entirely fictional.
Moore will probably always be remembered for these works, but he has since left the world of comics. Long before superhero stories became the bread and butter of Hollywood, some studio executives were already exploiting his work. The 2001 film version of From Hell, starring Johnny Depp, was particularly derided, but it is the opinion of Moore's purists that all adaptations of his work, including the acclaimed Emmy-winning miniseries Watchmen and a far cry from the source material, are at best the result of misinterpretations or hasty reductions, at worst, of offensive ugliness. Not only does Moore have nothing to do with such adaptations, he famously did not even watch half of them. Unsurprisingly, then, he has been a tireless advocate of creators' rights. After failing to relinquish ownership of the characters and stories he invented to mainstream comics publishers, especially DC, he disowned much of his best-loved material.
He remains, however, a prolific author. His 2016 novel entitled Jerusalem, set largely in Northampton's Boroughs, where Alan Moore was born and raised and where he spent most of his life, contains over 1,200 pages of viewpoints, styles and time slots. It is both a kind of cosmic autobiography and, taking inspiration from William Burroughs, an attempt to write something that would cheat death. This month, on the other hand, a collection of stories, Illuminations, was published, which includes What We Can Know About Thunderman, a scathing satire of the comic book industry, dedicated to Kevin O'Neill, Moore's collaborator on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, another of his classics that had a disastrous adaptation (Sean Connery, star of the operation, never starred in a feature film again after that film).
The times Moore has spoken to the press, he has been outspoken in railing against the absurdities of the superhero fan universe and the rapacity of the comics industry. "When I first protested the theft of my intellectual property," Moore recalls, "the reaction of many fans was, 'He's a madman, a man angry at the world. He is just inexplicably angry at everything. He wakes up in the morning, angry at his own pillow. He eats cereal for breakfast even though he hates it. He is irritated by everything; therefore, his fury is an end in itself. Everything is reduced to the image of a person pissed off at everything. Alan Moore becomes the prototype of the bilious man who shouts, 'Get off my lawn!'".
While talking to him, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is far from the truth. Alan Moore was pleasant, open and extremely reasonable, even when dealing with esoteric topics such as sculptural representations of deities taken as objects of worship. During our conversations he was of an almost mystical calm. He certainly looked like a magician, with his mass of long silver hair pulled back and let down behind his shoulders combined with a Merlin-style beard extending to mid-torso.
Did you experience the pandemic in Northampton?
I'm always in Northampton. During the whole pandemic, I barely put my nose out of the house. Melinda [Gebbie, Moore's wife and collaborator] and I barricaded ourselves in. I think pandemics are tailor-made for writers. That's how we live, without seeing our friends for months on end, locked in a silent room with no communication with the outside world. We handled everything well, I think.
What has kept you in Northampton for most of existence?
Northampton has always been a hotbed of trouble. As far as I know, Northamptonshire was the birthplace of Hereward the Outlaw, a figure I read stories about as a child. He was as iconic a character as King Arthur or Robin Hood in English mythology, with the small difference that Hereward actually existed. He was an anti-Norman terrorist, a sort of Bin Laden of Fenland, hiding in the bogs. He rode into Norman settlements, including Northampton, razed everything to the ground with his trademark cry of "Wake up, wake up!" and then rode back into the treacherous marshy moors so that anyone who followed him would almost certainly drown. Hereward was a huge pain in the ass for the Norman dynasty.
In the centuries that followed, Northampton was always at the centre of all trouble. I don't think Princess Diana [who grew up in the parish of Althorp in Northampton] gave Northamptonshire lustre in the eyes of the British establishment. It's hard to find someone famous from Northamptonshire who wasn't an incredible troublemaker, which probably gave me a predisposition towards that kind of sentiment.
Also, you have to remember that I am slightly disappointed. Northampton first got its charter [in the 11th century] under the Norman Richard the Lionheart on 18 November, which is actually my birthday. Je suis Northampton. I feel an immense affinity with the city and its fiery spirit. It's probably no wonder I've become like this.
"ALL THE MATERIAL THAT REMAINED TO THE VARIOUS COMIC PUBLISHERS, I DISOWNED. AN IMMENSE, UNBEARABLE PAIN"
When did you start reading comics?
I think where I come from illiteracy was still a stigma. There were many people who couldn't read or write. My mother probably read only one or two books in her lifetime. She could read, but she didn't like being in a book. Except for the novelisation of the musical The Sound of Music, which she had seen eight times. She took me with her on three of those occasions. Child abuse.
She was not an educated woman, but she loved words. She loved the long, difficult ones because she had the feeling that they were terms meant, in reality, only for the wealthy and we had stolen them. You should have seen the joy on her face when she said, 'Oh, Alan. Why do you have to be so 'obstinate'?".
At home I had British children's comics, which I read, I now realise, during their golden age. The British comics were about America, which to me was as exotic a land as Narnia. They were something that could be found in every working class home. We had a local market called Sid's Market Stall. It sold men's papers with sweaty soldiers being whipped by Nazi women who hid swastika bands under their underwear, which made me think that the American experience of the war had been very different from what my father told me about. They kept those newspapers hung with clips so that they were out of reach of children. And then they had a series of American comic books that they used to weight them down. By the time I was eight I had graduated from Mad Magazine University: I knew who John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson were. Nikita Khrushchev. I had learned a lot about America.
There are worse ways to learn about America
There probably are. I suppose comics were a very important thing in my life until I was about 14-15 years old. I had absorbed a lot of completely useless and unnecessary knowledge about superheroes, all these excessive, crazy, meaningless continuity details. I have a very receptive memory. Not so much now, but in my best years, yes, I remembered everything. It was very embarrassing when, at a comic book convention I attended after becoming a professional, they had a trivia quiz that I was persuaded to take part in. And, horror, I knew the secret identity of Chameleon Boy [a minor member of the DC Legion of Superheroes]! It was then that I realised that, no, you have to get some distance from this kind of notion. Otherwise, it becomes a kind of disease.
In Illuminations, there's a funny moment at the beginning of the story titled "What We Can Know About", in which a group of comic book writers venture into an intense discussion inside a diner about what's at stake in rewriting a character's origin story at the risk of messing up its continuity. Have you ever experienced similar situations?
I think What We Can Know About is probably my final verdict on the comics industry. The story is, in part, pure invention while the rest is more or less close to what happened. I have exaggerated far less than you might think.
The encounter with the comics industry was a real shock. I think I suffered from an illusion I had built up for myself: that I was very clever and able to increase the sales of a series fairly quickly; I assumed they were decent enough businessmen to realise that they would make a lot more profit from me and my work by treating me fairly, instead of giving in to their more instinctive impulses and stealing every single shit. Of course, mine turned out to be a romantic fantasy. I had just walked in the door and was about to walk out again. The period of comics that people still remember me for lasted no more than five years, between 1982 and 1987. Or something like that. In any case it was 35 years ago. All that stuff and the material that remained the property of the various comic book publishers, I disowned it. And it was an immense pain. Unbearable.
Painful from an artistic or economic point of view?
The two things are not separable. Artistically, it's painful because of the immense amount of commitment and hopefully vision I put into those early works. I was doing my best to refound the comics industry and, to a certain extent, comics as a genre, turning them into what I wanted them to be. I was introducing ideas that I thought would be good for comics to take them into new territories. Also from an artistic point of view, what was it like to have those works taken away from me and to see them so widely misunderstood?
I had the impression that from works of the calibre of Watchmen or V for Vendetta it was not the narrative technique that was plundered, which for me was the most important part, so much as the clearance of a certain quota of violence and sexual references. Boobs and entrails.
Things like Marvelman [now known, due to a series of legal issues, as Miracleman] and Watchmen, were critical of the superhero genre. They were trying to show that any attempt to bring these kinds of figures into any realistic context is always grotesque, nightmarish. Yet this does not seem to be the message people got from reading them. Rather, they seem to have thought: 'Uh, yeah, dark, depressing superheroes are 'cool'.
In creating Rorschach [a masked vigilante who is one of the main characters in Watchmen] I was thinking, well, everyone will understand that this is satirical. I'm making this guy a gruff psychopath who stinks, lives on cold baked beans and has no friends because of his repulsive personality. I did not realise that there would be so many people in the audience who would find such a figure admirable. I was told, probably five or ten years ago, that apparently Watchmen has quite a following among the American right. In fact… are you familiar with the far-right site, Stormfront?
Indeed. [editor's note: Stormfront is a neo-Nazi Internet forum that the Souther Poverty Law Center has described as "the first major hate site on the Internet."].
They took the fascist hymn I wrote for V for Vendetta and took the following logical route: 'Yes, this person is supposed to be the exact opposite of us politically, but because I read these beautiful words, I think secretly he is one of us, deep down. I think I understand fascism and I know what kind of hymns such people might like. But if these themes can be misunderstood in such a radical way, one wonders what was the point of doing so.
"I HAD THE IMPRESSION THAT FROM WORKS OF THE CALIBRE OF WATCHMEN OR V FOR REVENGE IT WASN'T THE NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE THAT WAS PLUNDERED, WHICH FOR ME WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART, SO MUCH AS THE CLEARANCE OF A CERTAIN QUOTA OF VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL REFERENCES. TITS AND ENTRAILS'.
I guess you haven't seen any of the adaptations from your works yet.
I am the last person in the universe to have the interest in seeing an adaptation of my work. From what I hear, it would be a huge punishment. It would be torture inflicted, moreover, for no good reason. In this regard, there has been an incident, which I consider definitive. I received a bulky parcel, via Federal Express, which arrived here in my quiet little living room. It turned out to contain a powder blue barbecue apron with a hydrogen symbol on the front.
It contained a heartfelt letter from the screenwriter of the TV adaptation of Watchmen that I had not yet heard of until that moment. Anyway, the letter opened with: 'Dear Mr. Moore, I am one of the bastards who are destroying Watchmen'. It was not the best of incipits. It continued with a lot of sentences that sounded to me like neurotic ramblings. "Can you at least tell us how to pronounce 'Ozymandias'?" [Another of Watchmen's vigilantes.]
I replied to him in a very brusque and hostile manner, clearly informing him that I thought Warner Brothers was aware that they or any of their employees should not contact me for any reason. I explained to him that I had disowned the work in question and had done so in part because the film industry and the comic book industry seemed to have created something completely unrelated to the meaning of my work, but which would be associated with it in the minds of the public. I replied: 'Look, this is embarrassing for me. I don't want anything to do with you or your show. Please don't bother me ever again'.
When I saw the television industry awards that the Watchmen TV series had officially won, I thought, "Oh my God, maybe a large part of the public thinks that's what Watchmen is?" They think it's a dark, gritty, dystopian superhero franchise that has to do with white supremacism. Do they not understand Watchmen? Watchmen is almost 40 years old and was relatively simple compared to a lot of my later work. What are the chances that they could have broadly understood anything since then? That's why I tend not to be very fond of those works. They have far less significance in my heart.
Was the making of Neonomicon or Providence in any way a harsh retort to some of the situations you talk about? A reaction against superheroes?
As for the Lovecraft books, it was strange. They grew almost like a culture in a petri dish. I was trying to separate Lovecraft and his ideas from the archaic setting in which they were usually presented. Lovecraft was somewhat anti-modern and certain stories were not designed for the contemporary world. Certainly not for today's reality. [Editor's note: Lovecraft set many of his stories in fictional New England towns, and is known both for his influential contributions to the horror and fantasy genres, and for the racism that taints the works]. Neonomicon was probably one of the most evil things he ever conceived.
I think it is the most disturbing.
Thank you. Because that's exactly what I wanted. I wanted to create something that went beyond horror. I wanted it to be really creepy. At the end, you don't have to say "This is a good horror story", but "I'm horrified". In Providence, I made the central character gay and Jewish, just to make the relationship with Lovecraft, who was notoriously anti-Semitic and maybe even homophobic, problematic.
Do you identify with Lovecraft in any way?
I find it very difficult to identify with a writer like Lovecraft. I can appreciate him, despite his racism, anti-Semitism, and what I would not go so far as to call misogyny, but a kind of discomfort with women. I can see that, in some ways, he was not an outsider as he is often portrayed. I think he was, in a way, an insider par excellence. He was a man so in tune with his times that he was almost the barometer of American terror.
In addition, Lovecraft was an avid reader of scientific journals and through this he had gained a cosmological perspective. He had kept abreast of Einstein's theories and seemed to have understood them. He did the best he could. It was a knowledge that amplified his ability to give expression to fear because he had actually realised how small and insignificant we were in this boundless universe. The universe for him was not governed by God, as he was an atheist, but by the blind and chaotic forces of physics unaware of our presence. They did not care about us. They were neither good nor evil. They would simply annihilate us in their cosmic indifference without ever even knowing we existed. These forces became Lovecraft's pantheon of unnamable, ancient deities. In a way, the writer wanted to give a dimension and a name, even if it was a particularly sprawling form, to the blind forces of physics that he believed governed human existence.
Much of your work deals in some way with the afterlife, with what happens to a person when they die. Would you call yourself an atheist or is the issue more complicated?
Things are more complicated than this simple alternative, but yes, I am an atheist. There is no man in the clouds who created everything. However, the pagan idea of gods and the way they were perceived in the classical world fascinates me. I am attracted to the notion that the ancient gods were entities relating to any particular field of activity, such as Hermes, who is the essence of language, intelligence and theft. I can accept the gods in this aspect, that is, in the form of pure ideas that have become, due to their complexity, self-conscious, or at least so complex as to be perceived as self-conscious, regardless of whether they are or not. It is therefore a strongly mitigated theism, not entirely atheistic.
Regarding what happens when we die, in my book Jerusalem I wanted to suggest an alternative way of thinking about life and death. It is something I had thought of myself after having assimilated Einstein, who had conceived of our four-dimensional universe: to the three we know, another is added, which is not time. If I have understood correctly, time is how human beings perceive the fourth dimension. We actually live in what Einstein called a block universe. This means a single four-dimensional block of space-time that is eternal and unchanging. This is the view of conventional physics. Of course there are people who dispute it, but it is normal in physics and Einstein came up with a theory that has so far been able to withstand the most rigorous falsifications. In the decades since his death, no one has disproved it.
In summary, if we are in an eternal and unchanging block universe, it means that everything contained within it is eternal and unchanging. In practice, our lives do not move. Time does not exist. Instead, our consciousness moves through a solid medium of space-time. The best way to imagine what our existence is is to compare it to a reel of film. Each frame is fixed and unchanging. There is no movement. However, when we activate a projector with its beam of light, or the light of consciousness in the analogy I am making, Charlie Chaplin does his funny walk, saves the girl and defeats the villain. There is action. There is a moral. There is a narrative. There is a sequence of events. Everything comes from static images.
Therefore, if this is so and we are in an unchanging and eternal solid, it means we are there forever: the entire past still exists and is still happening, in the past. Consequently, the future is already happening. We are already dead. We are not yet born. That is the nature of time and if the entire past is still there, that includes our lives along with everyone else's and every moment of consciousness within those lives. In my opinion, therefore, we live in an eternal repetition: when your consciousness reaches its final point at death, it can go nowhere else but to the beginning of that reel of film. It will always feel like the first time, even though there is actually no point in talking about a first time. This seems to me a rational way to get around the concept of death. I think I have made a fair attempt.
In the British children's comics we mentioned at the beginning, there was always a homage. Whether small or big, I always liked presents. So with Jerusalem I thought, 'I want to give everyone the best gift ever'. You know? A ticket out of the prison of death. At least to the best of my ability, and that's what I think I did.
It seems to me that the timing of our interview makes the next question inevitable: what do you think of the British monarchy?
Well, you have just uncovered a huge can of worms from my belly. The monarchy was forcibly imposed on us in the 11th century and I could hold a grudge for at least a thousand years. The royal family is something that flashes in the newspapers or on TV screens at intervals, usually when some frightening scandal breaks out. Otherwise, it is comparable to an old building. It is part of the English landscape, but nobody notices it much. The Queen enjoyed enormous sympathy due to the fact that she had been around for so long. She had existed since the birth of most of us. Her coronation was in the same year that I was born. In the US they think we are all in love with the Queen and the royal family, but for most ordinary people that is not the case.
When was the first time you visited America?
I visited America twice. I didn't feel very comfortable. Maybe it's me who doesn't feel at home anywhere. I have always warned people against making the mistake of trying to map out an unfamiliar country on another country that you know well, because we all tend to do that and it usually leads to making huge mistakes. I myself have been a victim of this because when I first went to America, I thought, 'OK, the Republicans are probably more like the Conservatives and that means the Democrats are probably more like the British Labour Party'. Therefore, the Republicans are right-wing and the Democrats are left-wing. That was the pattern in my head. Despite the fact that a great many of the Americans I had spoken to considered themselves left-wing, to my ears, and those of some of my British friends, they seemed essentially centre-right. Since 2016, in particular, it has struck me that Democrats have arguably become more conservative and Republicans seem to be closer to outright fascists. I think there is a worrying fascist current in America. I myself have stopped travelling. I haven't been out of the country since 1989, more or less.
I no longer have a passport. As far as I'm concerned, the whole universe is here.
What is your earliest memory of Northampton as a child?
We had a small terraced house opposite the railway station in an immensely old and run-down area called the Boroughs. Originally it was the main neighbourhood, but over the centuries the town had expanded and the Boroughs were more or less left to decay. By the end of the First World War, it had become a receptacle for the city's poorest people, shunned by decent people. It was actually the best community imaginable. It was undoubtedly a bad neighbourhood, but steeped in history. It would have deserved to be more celebrated, but as I said, Northampton has been on someone's hit list since the 11th century.
Because of the soot from the railway yards that covered everything, we had a very beautiful flower called Rosebay willow grass that thrived on dirt and ash. A beautiful little flower, silver-pink in colour. Every evening, the sun would set behind the railway yards, and since our house faced west, a beam of light would come in through the bedroom window. We had a small window that divided the entrance room from the living room. Sometimes, at tea time or around sunset on summer evenings, a beautiful splash of colour could be seen above the dusty wireless radio that sat on a small shelf halfway up the wall. Apparently not much, but a splash of colour in a very dark and cramped house is something extraordinary. This is perhaps one of my earliest memories.
I moved away from Boroughs. I now live a couple of kilometres away, roughly. Maybe half an hour on foot. For me it was a place of great inspiration. The neighbourhood was full of extraordinary characters that didn't exist anywhere else. My paternal grandmother was a so-called deathmonger. In poor neighbourhoods, where people could afford neither midwives nor undertakers, there was a working-class woman who took care of both for very little money. I should point out that it was always a woman. One I heard of, Mrs Gibbs, had two aprons. She had one black apron which she wore if she had to attend to the burial of a person who had recently died. The other was adorned around the hem with embroidery of beautiful bees and butterflies and was used for births. I am sure there must have been such people in other quarters as well, but the figure of the death-seller is, in my view, a terminology exclusive to Northampton. I know Northampton and I imagine they called them deathmongers because using their old name would have led them to the stake. They were witches. Wise women, herbalists and so on. People who dealt with medical matters, like a birth or a death. Fantastic, mythical characters. A huge amount of my inspiration comes from them.
You have long been associated with magic and the occult. Can you explain how this kind of imagery belongs to your life?
I have made magic a central aspect of my daily life. It is the way I see the world. It is the language I use to frame reality and it has an immense influence on my every thought and action. I still have a very healthy philosophical relationship with my toy statuette of Glycone, a Roman goddess of the second century AD with the features of a snake that I realised was much more significant than I thought as a child.
How did you come to make magic the focus of your daily life?
On the occasion of my 40th birthday, while drunk, I decided that I would become a magician. The next day, once I had sobered up, I realised that I had to go all the way, at the cost of making a fool of myself. The first person I asked for advice was my great friend and long-time mentor, Steve Moore, who had taught me to write comics and whom I had known since I was 14 or 15. Steve was already involved in a strange metaphysical relationship with the Greek goddess of the moon: Selene. The relationship with that goddess was probably the greatest romantic story of his life. It is not necessarily a drama, because it was important. I witnessed it and it was just as beautiful a relationship as the physical real-world ones I witnessed.
Steve was my first interlocutor. I asked him, "Well, now that I've decided to be a magician, what should I do? How do you do magic? How do you become a magician?" He replied: "The first thing you have to do is to choose a god, or let him choose you, and then use that imaginary being as a guide to the immaterial territory you are about to enter". It was then that Steve showed me a book of Roman antiquities that included, on the front cover, a statue of the last god created by the ancient Romans: Glycon. I thought he was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. There was something absurd and incredible about the majestic beauty of this snake with long blond hair. I am still not sure if it was me who decided or if it was the god who chose me.
According to Steve, once you have your god, it's not a bad idea to have a sculpted image of him. That's what he had done and after his death, today we are left with his image of Selene.
Is that so?
It's upstairs in the bedroom.