Alan Moore – “Hey, You Can’t Just Make Stuff Up”

Fascinating interview with one of the few great writers living today.

Via The Believer:

It was no easy feat getting in touch with Alan Moore. For a man who’s not afraid to speak his mind, he doesn’t like publicity. But when you get him talking, he has much to say. Moore is one of the most influential living comic-book writers, and his work has defined modern superhero comics in ways that are so enfolded into the industry that it’s hard to parse them anymore. For over thirty years he has put out a continuous stream of comics, from superheroes to Jack the Ripper to erotica. Moore’s reimagining of Swamp Thing in the early 1980s made horror comics their own industry just when publishers had all but given up on a comic subgenre that had once been the cause of the now much-belied Comics Code.

His 1986–87 comic Watchmen demythologized superheroes by stripping them of their godlike glamor and morality and showing how damaging and complicated power really is. Moore has also watched as his creations have been torn asunder by the very industry he helped transform. His much-loved comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a wonder of pulp, fantasy, intrigue, and politics, but once the movie studios got their hands on the property, it was turned into an example of how not to adapt a comic book.

But Moore, at least by all indications, has put all that behind him, particularly his very public falling-out with DC Comics. He has sworn off the mainstream comic-book publishers, writing only for smaller, independent companies. His output is still prolific. In 2009, Moore started publishing and editing Dodgem Logic, an underground magazine with many of the contributions from locals of his hometown of Northampton, England. He is currently working on Jerusalem, a novel expected to be over five hundred thousand words long, a twelve-issue comic series about H. P. Lovecraft for Avatar Comics, and another tale in the ongoing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Moore’s comics are not merely fanciful creations but alchemical diagrams that reveal the secrets of his unconscious. Moore believes magic is a grammar—a linguistic, symbolic structure for looking at the world. He has at times described interactions with gods and demons; he insists these entities are not real in the phenomenal sense. They are ideas, but they contain all the power of these gods as if they were real. Moore believes that art and magic are aspects of the same part of human consciousness: the will to create. Magic, for Moore, is not about the material world but the world of the mind. Its only authentic external expression is art. This interview took place by phone.

—Peter Bebergal


THE BELIEVER: How is Jerusalem coming along?

ALAN MOORE: I just finished chapter 32, which is a noir crime narrative based upon the Northampton pastor James Hervey, whom I believe was the father of the entire Gothic movement. I’m about to start chapter 33, which is a combination of the ghost story and the drug narrative. When I’ve got that one, there’s another two chapters, and then I will be drawing the cover and doing the revisions. So my best guess for when the book might be out would be perhaps the end of 2013 or early next year.

BLVR: It’s rumored that it’s going to be a long book. How many words have you written so far?

AM: It’s over half a million. I’m not sure, it might be around six hundred thousand words by the time it’s finished.

BLVR: Given that you’re capable of that, how have you ever been able to distill that kind of energy into a comic book?

AM: Well, it works the other way around, actually. I was lucky enough as a writer to start out working in British comics, where frankly there wasn’t a great deal of space. You’d be working in an anthology title where, if you were just starting out, you’d be given only three or four pages. In fact, my first jobs for Doctor Who Weekly were two-page installments, but given that I was coming to that from a background of doing semi-underground comic strips in British music papers which were half a page per installment, I had at least learned how to tell a reasonable chunk of story in a very limited space. When I got a story in two-page installments it seemed very expansive.

BLVR: The world just opened up!

AM: And it did, and when I was doing four-to-five-page stories for 2000 AD, I was seeing how much material I could fit into this expanded space, and then of course when I was doing eight-page serials, that expanded it again, and when I finally made the move to American comics and I’ve got twenty-four pages of full color to play with, I really appreciated that and I did my best to use it as effectively as possible. To start off with a background of short stories, that’s the best possible training for being a creative writer.

BLVR: And you knew immediately Jerusalem was to be a novel, or did you toy with the idea of it being a comic?

AM: No, I never toyed with the idea of it being a comic book. In fact the decision to write Jerusalem came as a very, very strong reaction against comic books. When I started Jerusalem—this would have been back in 2006—I had just had a very violent parting of the ways with DC Comics, stuff to do with the V for Vendetta film, which I think was then current. It felt really good to finally tell the people, “I’m not going to be working for you anymore. I’m not going to have any more to do with the comics industry than I can help in the future.” The decision to take on Jerusalem was very much a movement away from comics, to explore the possibilities of what the novel could do. I really enjoyed writing my first novel, Voice of the Fire. It is still one of my favorite works, but it was a first novel, and having learned a little of what writing a novel entails while doing that, I was trying to see if there were any other ideas that I could put into application. So yeah, it was never considered as anything other than a massive book.

BLVR: Do you imagine it will be released as a single book, or something that will come out in multiple volumes?

AM: This would really have to be produced as a single volume. I suppose that it might be three volumes in a slipcase, but the narrative is not at all linear. You really wouldn’t enjoy reading any one particular chapter of one particular section of this book without reading the other sections. It’s not like The Lord of the Rings in that sense.

BLVR: Yet the trend seems to be doing these epic-length fantasy novels that are intended to be broken up so that the publishers can keep putting them out every two or three years, as opposed to what you’re talking about, where the length is not determining how it should be published.

AM: No, that’s it. What I was trying for here is something which is quite a long way away from conventional narrative. I think it’s very readable, but the structure, the story, and the subject matter, all of these things make it very difficult to define. Parts of the books are frankly brutal social realism set in a wholly underprivileged neighborhood, and there are also chapters of outrageous fantasy dealing with ghosts, fairies, angels, and all sorts of other phantasmagoric creatures. And yet this is in a context of, largely, a social realist novel which is looking at this impoverished neighborhood and the people who pass through it over the years. So it’s a strange beast. I’ve been thinking of calling it “scientific fiction,” but that is largely out of perversity, mainly to annoy people who have a too-rigid definition of what science fiction should be.

Pretty much all of the book is predicated upon the assumption, which seems to be implicit in the work of most modern physicists since Einstein, that we inhabit a universe that has at least four spatial dimensions. There are the three dimensions that we are conventionally aware of, and there is the fourth dimension, which is also a spatial dimension, but we don’t perceive it as that. We perceive the distances of the fourth dimension as the passage of time. If I understand it correctly, I believe our entire continuum is at least a four-dimensional solid in which time is not passing, where every moment that ever existed or will exist is suspended, forever unchanging, from within this immense solid of space-time. And therefore the passage of time is an illusion that is only apparent to us as we move through this huge solid along what we perceive as the time axis.

BLVR: Where do you think human consciousness fits into that? Is it somehow separate from it?

AM: If time is an illusion, then all movement and change are also illusions. So the only thing that gives us the illusion of movement and change and events and time is the fact that our consciousness is moving through this mass along the time axis. If you imagine it as a strip of celluloid, each of those individual cells is motionless. If they each represent a moment, they’re unchanging. They’re not going anywhere, but as the projector beam of our consciousness passes across them, it provides the illusion of movement, and narrative and cause and effect and circumstances.

BLVR: You also believe that we can change the aperture of that projector through various processes like magic, or other ways of shaping consciousness.

AM: Yeah, our view of reality, the one we conventionally take, is one among many. It’s pretty much a fact that our entire universe is a mental construct. We don’t actually deal with reality directly. We simply compose a picture of reality from what’s going on in our retinas, in the timpani of our ears, and in our nerve endings. We perceive our own perception, and that perception is to us the entirety of the universe. I believe magic is, on one level, the willful attempt to alter those perceptions. Using your metaphor of an aperture, you would be widening that window or changing the angle consciously, and seeing what new vistas it affords you.

BLVR: Is magic’s most authentic expression through the creative imagination?

AM: Actually, art and magic are pretty much synonymous. I would imagine that this all goes back to the phenomenon of representation, when, in our primordial past, some genius or other actually flirted upon the winning formula of “This means that.” Whether “this” was a voice or “that” was a mark upon a dry wall or “that” was a guttural sound, it was that moment of representation. That actually transformed us from what we were into what we would be. It gave us the possibility, all of a sudden, of language. And when you have language, you can describe pictorially or verbally the strange and mystifying world that you see around you, and it’s probably not long before you also realize that, hey, you can just make stuff up. The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody. And we would’ve noticed very early on that the words we are listening to alter our consciousness, and using the way they can transform it, take it to places we’ve never dreamed of, places that don’t exist.

When that enchantment is the creation of gods and the creation of mythology, or the kind in the practice of magic, what I believe one is essentially doing is creating metafictions. It’s creating fictions that are so complex and so self-referential that for all practical intents and purposes they almost seem to be alive. That would be one of my definitions of what a god might be. It is a concept that has become so complex, sophisticated, and so self-referential that it appears to be aware of itself. We can’t say that it definitely is aware of itself, but then again we can’t really say that about even our fellow human beings.

BLVR: But we can tell stories about the god being aware of itself.

AM: Yes, and to some degree, ontologically, the creation of a metaphysical being actually is that metaphysical being. If gods and entities are conceptual creatures, which I believe they are self-evidently, then the concept of a god is a god. An image of a god is the god—a little closer to hand.


BLVR: I have been thinking quite a bit about emblems—renaissance alchemical emblems in particular—and how they provided that mediation between some abstract idea and the magician. And then it made me realize how for you comics have served that function.

AM: The comics medium has some unusual features that do make it very different, in that it’s combining a verbal narrative with a visual one that allows for much richer possibilities of transmitting information. Now, with something like that—say, working on Promethea—I was doing my best to use the possibilities of the comics medium and my own abilities in that medium (as well as the incredible abilities of J. H. Williams III, Mick Gray, and Jeromy Cox, who worked on that with me) to actually try my best to induce a kind of magical state in the reader.

BLVR: So the very making of comics is not by default a magical act. It’s the magician’s intention.

AM: The magician’s intention is paramount.

BLVR: Because a comic like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is not a magical comic, but Promethea is.

AM: Right, The Dark Knight is not a magical comic, and I would probably also say an awful lot of my own work was not intended magically, because I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms until 1994. However, retroactively I can see that a lot of my earlier work was starting to center around themes that would become a lot more lucid when I did understand them in a magical context. The sense of timelessness or the fact that time may have a very different nature than that which we perceive has been there since my earliest 2000 AD short stories. It was there in Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, it was there with William Gull in From Hell, and it’s there at the moment at the forefront of Jerusalem. So a lot of these things, even if they weren’t specifically magical, you start to see that, unintentionally, they were approaching a similar territory.

BLVR: In the last ten years or so there’s been what we might call another occult revival, a renewed interest in esoteric and hermetic ideas, especially among artists and musicians.

AM: I think that the current interest in occult and magical activities among musicians and artists is kind of to be welcomed, and in some ways perhaps predictable and inevitable. I think that our culture has gone about as far as it can in having no content or meaning to its art, and I think that an attempt to invest meaning in our culture and in our art by imbuing it with a sensibility of magic is probably necessary, and, like I said, probably inevitable, and certainly long overdue. I salute it considerably.

BLVR: How does the idea of emblems help shape or give more power to your imaginings?

AM: Promethea is, from the very first issue, described as a fictional character. Now there’s a strange loop of self-reference going on there, because you’re reading about this fictional character who is perfectly aware that she is a fictional character and indeed that is the source of her occult power. So it’s kind of more or less saying that, yes, this emblem of Promethea that you are looking at—this is the actual goddess Promethea. That this is an actual embodiment of the imagination. In fact for one panel I thought that we pretty much manifested the god Hermes. How would a god of language and communication manifest in a physical universe? And of course, just as a goddess of dreams would manifest through dreams, then a god of language and images and communications, and, if you like, comic strips, would probably manifest through a comic strip.

BLVR: And yet I understand you see the trend of trying to conflate gods with superheroes as something that’s a little bit contrived.

AM: It is contrived, because they’re not at all the same. Superheroes are the copyrighted property of big corporations. They are purely commercial entities; they are purely about making a buck. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some wonderful creations in the course of the history of the superhero comic, but to compare them with gods is fairly pointless. Yes, you can make obvious comparisons by saying the golden-age Flash looks a bit like Hermes, as he’s got wings on his helmet, or the golden-age Hawkman looks a bit like Horus because he’s got a hawk head. But this is just to say that comics creators through the decades have taken their inspiration where they can find it. Before I was interested in magic as a viable way of life, I was certainly aware of the occult, and wouldn’t be above taking names or concepts or ideas from the occult.

BLVR: From a purely DC Universe point of view, the true opposite of Superman would have to be Bizarro. But maybe the real opposite of Superman would have to be your version of Swamp Thing, this completely earthbound, almost pagan entity that was once human, as opposed to a cosmic, godlike alien that pretends at being human.

AM: Having taken over the character of Swamp Thing, I tried to come up with a way that I could reshape it without changing any of the established continuity, where I could move it from being what I saw as a very limited character into something with a lot more story potential. At first I was thinking about the differences between a hypothetical vegetable consciousness and a human consciousness, and I think that very early on, within two or three issues, I was starting to come to the idea that this was basically no longer a shambling heap of muck. This was actually some kind of plant elemental, potentially some kind of plant god.

BLVR: What about magic that purports to have real-world effects? I can go to the new-age bookstore up the street from where I live, get a book on how to conjure demons, and I can supposedly have them do my laundry.

AM: I wouldn’t recommend it. I did have one encounter with something that at least told me that it was a demon, and it seemed rude to question that. Which of course left me thinking, OK, what was I actually talking to? Is it a part of myself that I had not previously had access to? Has it claimed to be an independent entity? Actually, I think it doesn’t much matter. If something claims to be an independent entity, it’s only polite to treat it that way, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily is. But if I had to make a guess what that particular symbolic entity is, I would say that it represents our drives. But they are not evil, they are simply our drives, the things without which we probably couldn’t function. But if they’re left untended, if we don’t pay attention to those drives, if they’re not consciously directed, then they will run all over the place and get into all sorts of trouble.

BLVR: And art is a way of consciously directing those entities?

AM: Yes, art or magic.

BLVR: But how does the practice of magic become the practice of writing or art? By what means does someone magically conjure a character in a piece of fiction?

AM: I don’t think there’s really any difference between art—or writing, or music—and magic. And I particularly draw the link between magic and writing. I think that they are profoundly connected. And writing, creating a work of fiction, is an incredibly demanding feat of concentration, or focus. If you’re creating characters that are more than human in terms of their consciousness, if you’re creating a swamp god, or creating a quantum demigod like Dr. Manhattan, then in order to represent those characters’ thoughts you have to kind of project yourself into this transhuman state, which you can do with fiction.

BLVR: But now you seem to be saying that magic is purely an expression of the imagination and has no other attributes.

AM: Magic and art tend to share a lot of the same language. They both talk about evocation, invocation, and conjuring. If you’re trying to conjure a character, then maybe you should treat that with the respect that you would if you were trying to conjure a demon. Because if an image of a god is a god, then in some sense the image of a demon is a demon. I’m thinking of people like Malcolm Lowry, the exquisite author of Under the Volcano. There are kabbalistic demons that are lurking all the way through Under the Volcano, and I assume they were probably similar forces to the ones that eventually overwhelmed Lowry’s life, such as the drinking and the madness. When I hear alcoholics talk about having their demons, I think that they’re probably absolutely literally correct.

BLVR: Well, Carl Jung remarked that he didn’t think it was a coincidence that the Latin word for alcohol is spiritus.

AM: Well, that certainly makes sense. When modern horror films or fundamentalists talk about “demons,” they mean something very different than what Socrates meant by the term. It was a lot closer to what I was talking about: the essential drive, the highest self, if you like. So maybe there is a connection, when I met, or appeared to meet, a demon. It was a little bit frightening at first, but after a while we found that we got on OK and we could have a civilized conversation, and I found him very engaging, very pleasant. And it struck me that this was a brilliant literal example of the process of demonization. That when I had approached the demon with fear and loathing, it was fearsome and loathsome. When I approached it with respect, then it was respectable. And I thought, All right, there’s a kind of mirroring that is going on here that is probably applicable to a wide number of social situations. The people or classes of people that we demonize, and that we treat with fear and loathing, respond accordingly. We are projecting a persona of manner of behavior upon them, as well as responding to a manner of behavior that’s already there. When we’re looking at the flaws in their personality that we are able to recognize, the fact that we can recognize them suggests that they are probably in some way a version of flaws that we have ourselves.

BLVR: So in writing, whether you’re trying to inhabit a metaphysical being or trying to inhabit someone living in a poor neighborhood, unless you can inhabit them with compassion, and inhabit them with understanding, they’ll never be a believable character otherwise.

AM: Right, the character will be limited, and so will you. When I was doing V for Vendetta years ago, and I started to introduce the Nazi heads of this totalitarian state in the far-flung future of 1997, I’d been marching against the National Front and taking part in the Rock Against Racism marches, and I realized that I can’t just portray Nazis as bad guys, because everybody knows that, and you’re not saying anything. You’re contributing to the myth that they were somehow separate from the rest of humanity, which they weren’t. The Nazis were just ordinary human beings who got caught up in something very bad and, at the time, rather unprecedented. This is not to excuse their behavior, obviously, it’s simply to point out that it doesn’t do you any service to demonize any group of people. It’s much better to try and understand from the inside.

There was a scene in Promethea where the character is confronted by a horde of demons, and the way that she decides to deal with them is by owning them, by identifying each demon’s qualities and saying, “Yes, I’ve done that; yes, I accept responsibility for that,” at which point she actually physically eats the demon that she’s referring to. What a lot of magic is about is coming to your own individual terms with the universe, which is to say yourself, given that the entirety of the universe that is observable to you or me is that which actually exists inside our heads. And coming to an understanding of those things made me a little bit bigger because I had a part of my mind that could look with compassion at a class of people that I had never been able to do that with before. Not to like them any more, but to understand them.

BLVR: So do you imagine you’ll revisit any of these ideas about magic in a comic book, or do you feel like you’re really finished with that medium?

AM: Well, there’s the book of magic that me and Steve Moore are slowly and laboriously working on whenever we get together. But we’re about half to two-thirds of the way through it. And that has got some bits in it which are in comic-strip form, although the majority of it is in differently illustrated forms: illustrated stories, various kinds of cute things like a kabbalah board game or a set of tarot cards. So I wouldn’t rule out using comics as a means of magical instruction, because I think that they are kind of ideally suited for it.

BLVR: In this age of websites and blogs and tweets, what made you say, “I want to do a print fanzine,” and publish Dodgem Logic?

AM: I’d been working with some of the kids from down in my old neighborhood, which is the neighborhood that is the principal subject of Jerusalem. And I’d been working with a bunch of so-called “young offenders” from the Burrows, which is the name of the neighborhood, at least informally. And as an old offender from the Burrows, I felt that I could probably get on quite well. They were working on a film about the history of the area, and they asked me if I’d like to take part in it, and I got to meet them and their wrangler, who was a young graffiti artist. And I was incredibly impressed. She was working with these people as a social worker and she was doing such incredible work throughout the entire neighborhood. I’m a traditional ’60s bore, but I told them what it was like for me when I was in the Northampton art flat when I was seventeen, and how we were turning out a couple of fanzines every month—poetry magazines, art magazines—and somewhere in all of the verbiage something must have got through to this bunch of lads because they thought we could do a magazine.

BLVR: Now I can find it here in a comic-book shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

AM: Well, that’s great. We got to the point, with issue eight, where because we’d refused to take advertisements and because the production values and expenses were so high, it wasn’t working. I was losing a huge amount of money. I don’t regret any of it, because Dodgem Logic was a beautiful magazine and I was really proud of it. Once things are back on track a bit more, we are still hoping to reintroduce it as a print magazine. There was some possibility of bringing it out as an e-magazine, which sounded like a feasible plan. But then I actually saw an e-magazine and it just filled me with an indescribable sadness. It did all of these kind of cute things, none of which meant anything.

BLVR: You don’t seem to be part of the convention circuit, which is how many in the comics industry try to connect to fans. But I don’t see you as particularly shy, either.

AM: No, I’m not a very shy person. I’m just somebody who’s got a lot of work and who doesn’t like to parade himself in new celebrity contexts. So I don’t like to go to conventions, and I don’t like to relate to people on a level of hero worship, because there’s no real communication going on there. I prefer to talk to people on the same level. So, no, I’m not shy, but I am not publicity-seeking either.

BLVR: What do you imagine you would like to have happen to your papers when you die?

AM: I’ve lost most of them already, thus saving future biographers the problem of what to do with them. So, that’s that.


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