British writer Alan Moore was a comics fan from a very young age—"If you were working-class, you had comics. It was like rickets," he says—and by the time he was in his 20s, he was making a living writing comics and comic strips. 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 Swamp Thing. The company also gave him a launching pad for Watchmen, an intricately executed, seminal series that changed how literate comic-book readers thought about the superhero genre. Currently, Moore is writing half a dozen miniseries and ongoing monthly titles for DC Comics, including the psychedelic superhero comic Promethea, the retro-flavored Tom Strong titles, and the anthology Tomorrow Stories. But apart from Watchmen, his greatest work to date remains 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. The Hughes brothers' film adaptation of From Hell opened in America on Oct. 19. From his home in Northampton, England, Moore spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the From Hell movie, how the bad mood he was in 15 years ago has warped the comics industry, and his worship of a second-century sock puppet.
The Onion: Have you seen the film adaptation of From Hell yet?
Alan Moore: I've seen a brief trailer. But as with any trailers, they're a kind of chopped salad, visual one-and-a-half-second blips from the film. It's very difficult for me to make any kind of judgment upon the basis of the brief trailer that I've seen. The Hughes brothers are excellent directors, and the actors and actresses in the film are all ones that I've got a lot of time for. I think that it'll probably be a very, very good film. It won't be my book, and I kind of understood that from the beginning. I mean, From Hell takes about five hours to read. Even with some serious editing, you've got to take out about three-fifths of the book before you've got it down to something like film length, and the three-fifths that'll be taken out will obviously be a lot of the stuff that I was most interested in: the strange architectural ruminations, or the sort of ponderings upon history and mythology and geography. But that's not really going to play in Poughkeepsie, and it really wouldn't work for a Hollywood movie. So I accept and acknowledge that it's obviously going to have to be very different, but I'm sure it'll be a good film. What I'm hoping for is a situation like, say, the one with Philip K. Dick's short story, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? It was a very, very good short story, and the film Blade Runner was a very good film which didn't necessarily have a great deal of connection with Dick's story. But both were successful entities in their own right. I think that's the kind of position that I have to take with the film. Visually, it looks spectacular. The sets are remarkable, and from what I can tell with the trailer, it's probably going to be a lot more exciting than the book, more thrilling.
O: Did you have any involvement in making the film?
AM: No, deliberately. I think at an early stage, I was asked if I did want any involvement, but whenever there's been films proposed of any of my books, my answer has been pretty much the same. If someone's going to butcher my baby, I'd just rather it wasn't me. And also, I don't really have any great interest in writing for movies. Comics, to me, is a much more promising field. There's still a lot of ground to be broken in comics, whereas movies, to a degree… I don't know. They're a wonderful art form, but they're not my favorite art form. They might not even be in the top five of my favorite art forms. So my energies, I think, are best put into a medium I understand and enjoy and have enthusiasm for. On that basis alone, I'm not intending to write any films. But if it's an adaptation of one of my own works, then it would be too painful to… You're talking to a writer who doesn't even revise. Everything you've ever read of mine is first-draft. This is one of the peculiarities of the comics field. By the time you're working on chapter three of your masterwork, chapter one is already in print. You can't go back and suddenly decide to make this character a woman, or have this one fall out of a window. It's got to be pretty much right the first time. So to me, rewriting is a harrowing process. I just don't do it. On the one occasion where I did try writing a screenplay, I found the rewriting just unendurable.
O: If you consider making a film version of your work to be butchering your baby, why permit a film version to be made at all?
AM: Well, perhaps "butchering my baby" is a bit extreme. After all, I would not allow anyone to butcher a baby of mine, no matter how much money they were offering me. I think that there is… I mean, obviously, if someone takes up an option on one of my books, it's a great deal of money for me and the artist. It wouldn't be anything that I'd rapidly turn down. I suppose that the way I keep all that straight in my head is by keeping this kind of detachment, and by realizing that the film and the book are very different entities. Apparently, someone asked Raymond Chandler once what he thought of Hollywood ruining all of his books. And he took them into his study and pointed up to the shelf where they all were, and he said, "Look, they're there. They're fine. They're okay." That's the attitude I have to take. The film hasn't ruined my book. Probably what I meant is more that the process of rewriting and changing my own story would have felt to me like butchering my baby. That's probably a bit too much for me, like the idea of changing things that I thought were perfectly fine the way they were. It would be difficult. But largely, no, it's not that I feel that Hollywood has butchered my work, or anything like that, because it's a completely different entity. I think for my own sanity and emotional balance, that's the best tack I can take with it, really.
O: What kind of responsibility, if any, do you feel for something that's created from one of your works, or in direct response to one of your works?
AM: None, practically. I'm always interested to see what's been done with it, but I kind of feel that the connection between my work and the work that's been adapted from it is kind of coincidental, not really of any great significance. It certainly doesn't feel connected for me, emotionally. I could never be the kind of writer who went to the set of the movie and fussed and fretted about, "Oh, that dialogue's wrong," or "That character doesn't look like that." That would be insufferable. It's their movie. Let them get on with it. But at the same time, there is probably a sense of emotional distance that derives from that, where I feel very little. I wish the adaptation well, and look forward to seeing it, and seeing what kind of a take they've adapted upon my material. But I don't really have a lot invested in it, emotionally.
O: It's a bit surprising that you wouldn't consider film a favorite medium. It seems like the artistic medium best capable of imitating the visual narrative and the juxtaposition that you specialize in.
AM: Ah. Well, you see, [comics legend] Will Eisner was immensely influenced by Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Orson Welles, in turn, had been very much influenced by techniques that were straight out of a comic book. For example, you have the silhouette of a house on a hill, with a voiceover narrative that takes the place of a caption. There's always been this feedback between comics and films. But I think that if you take that analogy too far, if you only see comic books in terms of films, then eventually the best we can end up with is films that don't move. It would make us a poor relation to the movie industry. What I've tried to do with my work, from Watchmen onward, is to do things that can only be done in comics. For example, with a movie, the audience is going to be dragged through that movie at 24 frames per second. That's the running time of the movie. It's going to take them two hours, or whatever, to watch it. It doesn't matter who they are; that is the speed at which they're going to watch that movie. Now, with comics, it's a much more user-friendly medium. The reader can focus upon one panel for as long as it takes to absorb all of the information that is there, and then move on to the next. If they want to see whether there's some correlation between a bit of dialogue and something that happened a couple of scenes ago, they can, in a matter of seconds, flip back. I know that we can rerun videos, and rewind and pause and things like that, but that's not the way you're meant to watch a film. That's not the way a film is designed to be watched, and very few people actually do that. But with comics, say for example with Watchmen, Dave Gibbons can be given the most insane amount of panel detail in the panel descriptions. I can tell him what's going on in the foreground, middle ground, background, the left, the right. This is just one panel on a nine-panel page, and everything will be there. Even with a director who can be as obsessively detailed as, say, Terry Gilliam, who was at one point touted as the possible director of the Watchmen movie… He can cram an awful lot of detail into the backgrounds of his movies, but nowhere near the amount that Dave Gibbons can. The film is moving through the projector much too fast for the audience to pick out these tiny details. My preference tends to be more toward comic books, where, frankly, I have much more control. I mean, in one of my comic scripts, if there is a full stop at the end of a sentence, that full stop will be there in the finished comic, unless something has gone wildly wrong. In movies, I accept that there's no one person who has that control. I doubt that there are many screenplays of movies that either of us have seen over the past 10 years that were first drafts, or were the work of purely one person. In my world, the actors and the director are all made of paper, and they do exactly what I say. I feel much more in control of the finished work. I feel like the statement that I'm making—even though it's in a medium by no means as glamorous or as widely recognized as film—is at least the statement that I wanted to make. That's a lot more important to me than the allure of working for Hollywood. The only real reason that I'd have for working for Hollywood is the fantastic amounts of money involved, and that isn't enough of an incentive to really give up the degree of control that I have over my work at the moment. I suppose that's probably why I don't have any designs on being a screenwriter. For one thing, that would mean moving out of Northampton, and I already can't imagine that. I very seldom even leave this end of the living room. The other end of the living room is a foreign place where they do things differently, and where I feel a bit nervous. So that's basically it. I think that there are things that comics can do which are stunning. There are things that can't be achieved either by literature or by movies or by paintings. Just like any art form, it's got things that it alone can do. I think that this is probably what Terry Gilliam ultimately came to agree with me on, regarding Watchmen. I think that as he tried to prepare a script for it, he realized just how much of the texture and content and nuance of the original was going to have to be chopped out. I think that he does still occasionally, every couple of interviews, talk wistfully about how maybe the next film might be Watchmen. I don't think it's gonna happen, and I think that it's generally for the reasons Terry himself has given, that it would simply lose too much translating it from one medium to another.
O: There have been a lot of conflicting reports about Terry Gilliam's Watchmen project. In some of them, he does discard the whole idea as unfilmable, which obviously would mean it would never get made. In others, it's a funding problem, based on the ups and downs of his Hollywood career, which leaves some hope that it might happen someday.
AM: He's a funny, contradictory character, Terry. I don't know what the situation is. Perhaps it's a bit of both. I should think that probably the answer does lie somewhere in between. To make the film that he wanted to make would probably take an absurd amount of money, and he may not even be sure that the film would be worth making, given that amount of money. I don't know, I don't want to put words into his mouth. I had a very nice dinner with him. This is one of the perks of the job, that occasionally you meet interesting celebrities.
O: But do you yourself think it's unfilmable? Do you think it might gain anything in the translation, or is there only a possibility for loss?
AM: Personally, I tend to think it's unfilmable, and it would only lose something. But there, again, I'm very pessimistic about adaptations from one medium to another. I've got a very kind of primitive, Puritan view of it. I tend to think that if something was derived for one medium, then there's no real immediate reason to think that it's necessarily going to be as good or better if adapted into another one. Sometimes the transition can be easier. There have been very good stage plays that have made some very good films. But there are not so many differences between the theater and the cinema as there are between the cinema and, say, reading a book or reading a comic. So I generally tend to be pessimistic, although I could sometimes be wrong. You'll occasionally get a film that is a wonderful adaptation of a book, and maybe does add something to it. But I'd say that with Watchmen, the complexity of the storytelling, which is tailored specifically to the comics medium, would inevitably be lost. I mean, I stand to be corrected, if at some point in the future Terry does revive the project and do something miraculous with it. But my guess would be that it would probably lose an awful lot of what made the comic special in the first place.
O: Is it true that you regret in some ways the effect that Watchmen had on the comics industry?
AM: To a degree. That is partly because there seems to be a kind of allure that is… Perhaps it happens in any medium, where anything of any kind of great proportion, no matter how good it is, 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 very 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 think, to that degree, it may have had a deleterious effect upon the medium since then. 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. This is not to say that the entire industry became like this, but at least a big enough chunk of it did that it is a noticeable thing. 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. So that tended to reflect in my work. But it was a genuine bad mood, and it was mine. I tend to think that 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, but they're still working out the ramifications of me being a bit grumpy 15 years ago. 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 ever go to conventions, try to get autographs, try to meet artists, that sort of thing?
AM: I actually attended the second [British comics convention]. It was nothing like the horrific comic conventions that exist at the present day. It wasn't a marketing exercise on behalf of the companies. Most of them didn't have any idea that these conventions existed. I got to speak to people like Barry Smith and Frank Bellamy, and made a lot of really important friendships back then. I think that 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 noise started, when the big turmoil about comics started in the middle '80s, and the conventions got bigger and 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 and sort of… 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. It's a novelty. 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 very unhealthy about the relationship between celebrity and public that I couldn't really subscribe to. Everybody suddenly 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 sort of possible communication is between equals. I started to feel very alienated and very strange, so I stopped going to conventions altogether, or doing public appearances. 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. It wasn't the rest of it.
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, yeah, 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. It's a dangerous thing. 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 a kind of a spooky, creepy way. But I don't want to colonize their imagination as some sort of idol.
O: Speaking of having an effect on people's minds, 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's probably at the stage now where I see almost everything in my life, and in the world around me, in magical terms. 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. This is quite a fantastic amount of pages to be turning out every month. 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, it includes the creation of the universe from a quantum vacuum, or it includes how a comic comes into being from me sitting in an armchair with a completely blank mind. It's all of this. Any given creativity is magic. And sort of 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. I've got the wonderful talents of Jim Williams and Mick Gray and Todd Klein and Jeromy Cox helping me out on that. Yeah, 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, and sort of, if I can… If they are of interest to anybody beyond me, then I'm very happy to pass them on. 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. Things that are actually a lot more broadly applicable and of broader interest than superheroes. Promethea is about very human things, even though I'm using a superheroic vessel to convey those things.
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. 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. I mean, 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 don't want anybody else to start worshipping this god. 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. It would be a bit creepy if everybody else suddenly started worshipping this second-century glove-puppet. 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 the word anarchy is mentioned. I think that anarchy is, to the contrary, 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. I mean, anarchy is about taking complete responsibility for yourself. And I would extend that into the spiritual area, with the differences between religion and magic. All I would be urging people to do in Promethea is to explore, in their own way, by whatever means they personally feel comfortable with, using 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. I just want to tell them that that world is there, that there are a variety of ways of exploring it. 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.