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British writer Alan Moore was a comics fan from a very young age, and he was making a living scripting comic books by the time he reached his 20s. After winning awards for his V For Vendetta series, a grim story about a poetry-spouting terrorist spreading anarchy in a fascistic future England, he attracted the attention of DC Comics, which recruited him to take over the Swamp Thing series. DC also gave Moore a launching pad for Watchmen, an intricately executed, seminal series that changed how literate comic-book readers thought about the superhero genre. Apart from Watchmen, Moore's greatest work to date is From Hell, a massive exploration of the Jack The Ripper murders that incorporates British history, Masonic ritual, and London geography in a fascinating and horrifying conspiracy theory. As the Hughes brothers' 2001 film adaptation of From Hell prepared to launch, Moore spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his status as the Howard Hughes of comics, how the bad mood he was in 15 years ago has warped the comics industry, and why he worships a second-century sock puppet.
The Onion: When you first started reading comics as a child and thinking about becoming a comics writer, did you ever consider the kind of deconstruction you've made into a career? Or were you just interested in imitating existing works back then?
Alan Moore: I was 8. The deconstruction of comics was when the staples came out, for that age. I started out like any other child of that age, just purely obsessed with the characters. I wanted to know what Batman was doing this month, whether he was hanging out with Superman, or whether he was with the Justice League. Given a couple of years, I discovered things like Harvey Kurtzman's original Mad comic, which was reprinted in paperbacks that were available over here. I discovered Will Eisner's Spirit. These were an incredible jolt, because, for the first time, I was suddenly aware of the fantastic intelligence that could be invested in comics, given a talented enough creator. People like Kurtzman or Eisner were telling stories that could only be told in the comics form, but they were telling them with such style and power that I began to grasp what comics might be capable of. I started to realize how comics didn't need to be the way that the more normal comics that made up my reading diet always seemed to be, that you could do fantastic things. I certainly thought they could probably be made more realistic. I thought they could probably be given greater atmosphere, and that the writing could perhaps be improved. I didn't see why literary values shouldn't be transplanted to comics. But during those days, this was only on a very amateur level. I'd do sort of incoherent experimental comic strips for local arts magazines or local quasi-underground papers. Which were, I suppose, an attempt at learning my craft, but they weren't deconstructed; they were just messy. But, yeah, probably from an early age, there was a desire to do a different kind of comic book. I can't really claim to have any intelligent master plan. I probably didn't even realize that I was deconstructing superheroes until I was about halfway through Watchmen. Afterwards, it seemed a lot more obvious, but at the time we were just trying to do a cleverer-than-usual, more-stylish-than-usual superhero comic. But two or three issues in, it had become a sort of semiotic nightmare that I still get hounded by literature professors over to this day. It obviously, halfway through the telling, became a very different sort of animal.
O: Did that realization actually alter Watchmen in the writing? Did you end up changing the story midway through as you realized what you were doing?
AM: We didn't. The basic plot was there from before we started work on it. And we knew that we were going to be treating these superheroes in a way that was probably a little more dark, and perhaps a little more naturalistic, than the way they'd been treated usually. I was writing the opening pages and, as is my custom, making tiny little thumbnail sketches to actually be able to envisage what the page would finally look like when it was drawn. I had two or three strains of narrative going on in the same page. I had a truculent news vendor giving his fairly uninformed commentary on the political state of the world, the likelihood of a coming war. Across the street, in the background, we have two people fixing a radiation sign to a wall. Sitting with his back to a hydrant near the news vendor, there's a small boy reading a comic, which is a pirate comic. And I think while I was doodling, I noticed that an extreme close-up of the radiation symbol, if you put the right sort of caption with it, could look almost like the black sail of a ship against a yellow sky. So I dropped in a caption in the comic that the child was reading about a hellbound ship's black sails against a yellow Indies sky. And I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the news vendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we're looking at a radiation symbol that's being tacked to the wall of a newly created fallout shelter. And finally, when we pull back into the beginning, into the foreground, we realize that these pirate captions that we've been reading are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. This was exciting. There was something going on here. There was an interplay between the imagery, between the strands of narrative, the pirate narrative, the dialogue going on in the street. They were striking sparks off of each other, and they were doing something which I hadn't actually seen a comic do before. I think it was around those first three pages of Watchmen #3 that I started to realize that we'd got something different on our hands here. By the next issue, we had this incredibly complex kind of multifaceted view of time, where everything is kind of happening at once–at least in the mind of the central character. Which, again, opened up possibilities for new narrative tricks, which we pretty much kept up until the end of the series. But, like I said, it was purely while I was scribbling, doodling, writing bits of dialogue and crossing them out that I suddenly noticed these possibilities for things that could be done in a comic and nowhere else.
O: Is it true that you regret the effect that Watchmen had on the comics industry?
AM: To a degree. Perhaps it happens in any medium, where anything of any kind of great proportion will have an adverse effect upon the medium itself. I think that what a lot of people saw when they read Watchmen was a high degree of violence, a bleaker and more pessimistic political perspective, perhaps a bit more sex, more swearing. And to some degree there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories that don't have a lot to recommend them. And some of them are very pretentious, where they'll try and grab some sort of intellectual gloss for what they're doing by referring to a few song titles or the odd book. They'll name-drop William Burroughs here or there. Just like Mad comics, which was a unique standalone thing, it's almost become a genre. The gritty, deconstructivist postmodern superhero comic, as exemplified by Watchmen, also became a genre. It was never meant to. It was meant to be one work on its own. I'd have liked to have seen more people trying to do something that was as technically complex as Watchmen, or as ambitious, but which wasn't strumming the same chords that Watchmen had strummed so repetitively. The apocalyptic bleakness of comics over the past 15 years sometimes seems odd to me, because it's like that was a bad mood that I was in 15 years ago. It was the 1980s, we'd got this insane right-wing voter fear running the country, and I was in a bad mood, politically and socially and in most other ways. But it was a genuine bad mood, and it was mine. I've seen a lot of things over the past 15 years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else's bad mood. It's not even their bad mood, it's mine. So, for my part, I wouldn't say that my new stuff is all bunny rabbits and blue-skies optimism, but it's probably got a lot more of a positive spin on it than the work I was doing back in the '80s. This is a different century.
O: Did you ever go through a traditional fandom period? Did you go to conventions, try to get autographs, try to meet artists, that sort of thing?
AM: I actually attended the second British comic convention. It was nothing like the horrific conventions that exist at the present day. It wasn't a marketing exercise on behalf of the companies. I got to speak to people like Barry Smith and Frank Bellamy, and made a lot of really important friendships back then. Moving on a few years, the conventions were starting to get uncomfortably big and not so much fun, and I was starting to find something a little clammy about fandom. The whole idea that you could be a celebrity and be working in comics was an idea that had never occurred to me, because when I took on the job it was the most obscure job in the world. When the big turmoil about comics started in the middle '80s, and the conventions got bigger and bigger, and there was more television and press, that was the point where it all became a little much for me. I swore off public appearances. I've become like the Howard Hughes of the comics medium. I hang around in a darkened room, eating ice cream in a negligee, or something like that. Yes, it's nice at first to have lots of people telling you that you're a genius. Then you realize that they're almost certainly wrong, that they're all very young, hysterical, and sort of overwrought about something that was probably just a good comic story. There's something unhealthy about the relationship between celebrity and public that I couldn't really subscribe to. Everybody starts treating you as if you're on some different level, so you can't really communicate with them. I honestly think that the only possible communication is between equals. I started to feel very alienated and very strange. I didn't really sign up to be a celebrity, I only signed up to be a writer. That was the part that I was interested in.
O: Is celebrity itself the problem? Do you think it's possible for a creator and his fans to have a relationship if it's not...
AM: It may well be possible. I know some people who manage it very well. But these days, everybody wants to be famous, and I think all too often, you'll see somebody who has maybe written one good book, made one good film, produced one good record, one good comic book. And all of a sudden, everyone's telling him that he's a genius, and he probably thinks, "Well, yes, I am. I always thought that I was sort of special, and, yeah, that's probably because I was a genius." He'll launch himself out onto the billows of fame, and he'll be washed up in the tabloid press six months later, when his bloated, heroin-sodden carcass bobs up to a beach somewhere. Fame does all sorts of unpleasant things to people. It tends to, in many cases, warp them. It doesn't necessarily make them happier. It's nothing that I'm very interested in. I figure that, for the number of people who read my work and get something out of it, I'm already having an untoward effect upon their minds and thoughts. Which I must admit I quite enjoy, in kind of a spooky, creepy way. But I don't want to colonize their imagination as some sort of idol.
O: With From Hell and Promethea, you get very deeply into the history of symbolism and magic. Are you trying to educate the masses, or is there a specific purpose?
AM: Well, I do have a purpose. I am an incredibly vain person, but I am also, with Promethea, trying to educate people about something I am genuinely interested in, and which I generally think is of interest to a lot of people. When I was 40, I decided to become a magician, for various reasons. Most people get to 40 and have a midlife crisis, and that's just boring. They bore their friends by going around saying, "What's it all about? What's the point?" I thought it might be at least more entertaining to go spectacularly mad and start worshipping a snake and declaring myself to be a magician. It's been immense fun. And, more than fun, it's been illuminating. It certainly seems to have given me a lot of energy in my work. I'm probably doing more books now than I've ever done, even when I was young and sprightly. A lot of that is the new insights into my own creative processes, which I thank magic for. Because in some sense, when I'm talking about magic, I'm only talking about the creative process. Magic to me is something from nothing, which includes rabbits out of hats, the creation of the universe from a quantum vacuum, or how a comic comes into being from me sitting in an armchair with a completely blank mind. Any given creativity is magic. And by understanding magic, I have understood a little more about the processes by which I have been supporting myself for these past 20 years. Certainly, Promethea is a magical rant seemingly disguised as a superheroine comic. It's kind of a visionary odyssey, and I'm able to get over a lot of valid information. Not in terms of magic being a doorway to some strange mad dimension full of angels and demons and gods–although, yes, there is a lot of that. But I think primarily, magic is simply a new way of seeing the ordinary universe that surrounds us, and ourselves as creatures in that universe. I've certainly been impressed by some of the insights that I seem to have received from my imaginary friends. I mean, with the readership of Promethea, we've had some people who've got frankly bored with what I suppose must have come to sound like some sort of manic, ranting lecture from Charles Manson or somebody. But on the other hand, there are a lot of people who seem genuinely appreciative, and new readers who come to the book precisely because it is exploring things like Kabbalah and Tarot and notions of human history, the makeup of the human psyche.
O: When you talk about the way it's helped you and the way it could help other people in your situation, you make it sound essentially like a religion that you're preaching to other people in order to aid them spiritually.
AM: No, I draw a sharp distinction between magic and religion. I see them almost as the spiritual parallels of say, fascism and anarchy in the political arena. To me, politics does not divide into right-wing and left-wing, in that capitalism and communism are both just two different ways of ordering industrial societies, which have not been around for a vast amount of time and probably won't be around for a lot longer. To me, the two poles of politics are fascism, which... from the original Roman concept, the symbol for it was a bundle of bound twigs. The idea being, "In unity there is strength." Religion is almost the political equivalent of that. Religion, strictly speaking, doesn't even have to be about anything spiritual. The Conservative Party is a religion in that they are bound together by belief. Almost any organization has its religious aspects. With magic, I worship a second-century Roman snake god who, on the best evidence that I can dredge up from that period, was some kind of elaborate glove-puppet that was being controlled by a second-century snake-oil salesman–basically a complete fraud, huckster, and showman. I find something a bit unnatural in the idea of being bound together in spiritual ideas with people. I'm sure that, in our natural state, we all believe something entirely different. I don't necessarily want anybody to believe the same things I believe, which is one of the reasons why I've adopted such a patently mad sort of deity. The idea of the deity is all I'm interested in, so that's fine for my purposes. Magic to me is more like anarchy. The roots of the word "anarchy" are an archos, no leaders, which is not really about the kind of chaos that most people imagine when anarchy is mentioned. I think that anarchy is about taking personal responsibility for yourself. I believe that fascism is about abandoning your personal responsibility to the group or to society. You say, "In unity there is strength," which inevitably will become, "In uniformity there is strength." It's better if all those sticks are the same size and length, because then they'll make a tidier bundle, which consequently leads to the kind of fascism that we saw in the '30s and '40s. All I would be urging people to do in Promethea is to use whatever system they happen to feel comfortable with, whether that be Christianity, or paganism, or Hinduism, or anything else, to explore the kind of rich world that I think all of us have inside us. It doesn't really matter which way you use, or which system you adopt. It's a territory I find very rewarding, very fulfilling, very human. To point out that territory to other people is something I feel happy about doing. To erect a huge church there and officiate over rituals, is not.