Interview: legendary graphic novelist Alan Moore

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Alan Moore looks insane. He probably is. He is a self styled magician, pornographer, anarchist, occultist, luddite, prophet and in his teens, “the most inept acid dealer in history.” His religious views seem like a pastiche of new age spirituality and pseudo-science. He has not shaved in about 40 years, giving him an appearance that reminds one of Rasputin or Gimli. 

 

Yet, he is also one of the most brilliant and literate people I have ever met and what struck me most when we spoke was just how lucid and eloquent he is when discussing the most taboo or outlandish concepts. What immediately comes across is a deep appreciation of nuance and irony, his ability to give a fresh and invigorating perspective on a situation is what makes his work so vibrant. Take this line, for instance, from his documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, when asked about conspiracy theories.“The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”

Born in 1953 in Northampton, where he lives to this day, Moore rose to prominence within the comic scene with his re-imagining of Swamp Thing in 1977, and to international superstardom with Watchmen, the gritty noir re-imagining of superheroes as they would be in the real world; deranged, tormented, full of grandiose delusions and cruelly manipulated by political forces. Repulsed by the glitter and fame of the celebrity lifestyle however, he retreated to Northampton, where his fervent imagination gave us such works as the exploration of the Jack the Ripper myths in From Hell, or his attempt to expand the erotica genre from mere titillation to genuine literature in Lost Girl.

I met him at the Oxford Literary Festival, where he was part of a panel speaking out against the recent coalition cuts to education. Given this context, the intersection between art and politics seemed an ideal starting point for our discussion. It is, he tells me the solemn duty of the artist to be politically involved. “If art does have a purpose, and it has, I then suspect that that purpose is some on-going critique of our human development. This development is almost entirely predicated on current circumstances, which are almost entirely predicated on the political reality that we exist in. So what I would say to artists that claim to be apolitical, is that that’s evasion.”

But what of Auden, who in his elegy to Yeats, declaimed the political impotence of the artist saying that “poetry makes nothing happen; it survives.” Can the artist be a part of the political process, rather than a mere observer? “Well they certainly can. I am reminded for some reason of when Angela Carter had written a review of Iain Sinclair’s excellent book Downriver which was concieved as a kind of curse on the Thatcher administration. Angela was saying in the review that this is wonderful, this is tremendous, but considering that Margaret Thatcher was out of office about a good month or two before this book, you have to think that Iain Sinclair is about as good a prophet as his idol William Blake. Iain wrote her a wonderful letter in response, but he took issue with the comments on the role of the prophet, saying that its not the role of the prophet to predict the future, which is a cheap parlour trick, but its the job of the prophet to actually create the future, and I tend to side with Iain on that one. I think that if you are generating new and fresh ideas, and if they are powerful enough then they will inevitably be picked up and become part of the cultural mix and cultural stream if you will.” Perhaps the most iconic example of this in Moore’s own work is the mask of his legendary character V, made famous by the Anonymous Movement and appropriated by Occupy Wall Street among others. He goes on to point out a number of eerie parallels between his dystopian work and modern society.

“I came up with the ideas in V For Vendetta trying to imagine the unimaginably distant future of 1997, and was trying to think of how to best convey that we were living in a totalitarian police state at that time, so I decided to put security cameras on every street corner, which was unimaginable in 1981. However, when Labour got into power in 1997, the first thing Tony Blair did was to roll out security cameras all across the country. I don’t know whether he would have been quite young enough to be an early reader, but I would hope that I didn’t give him any ideas. Also in V For Vendetta I had decided that this future fascist state was going to be dangerously centralized around a computer network, which was far from a common idea in 1981. The success of my anarchist characters crusade against the state depends upon the fact that he has hacked into this network. Which does, I suppose, prefigure the Anonymous people; it seems that often you can put these ideas out into culture, but it seems that there was no-one to really act on them for 20 or 30 years.”

While Moore describes himself politically as an anarchist, sympathising with V’s resistance to a fascist state, he actually claims that V is not really a hero. In fact, when asked about the role of heroes in his work, he claims to find the concepts of heroes and villains a fundamentally flawed one.

“I went into writing the strips planning to portray most of the officials as merely cartoon Nazi’s. But one of the most important developments I had as a writer was to realise that no one sees themselves as a villain; we all cast ourselves as the heroes of our own narrative. About 20 years ago I did a program for some “Eurotrash” TV show, and they actually had me on a program about heroes. They showed me a clip of the very brave man in Tiananmen Square and they asked if I considered him a hero, and I had to answer yes. Anyone who is willing to stand in front of a tank is obviously extraordinarily courageous. But he, along with for instance Jan Pallach, the young Czech who immolated himself in 1968 in Wencezslav Square in protest against the Soviet Invasion, are heroes that we are allowed; because they are anti-communist heroes. Around the same time, when Thatcher was in power, a guy who was from the North, out of work, and in protest against the hopelessness of his life and the hopelessness in which his community found itself, drove his car to the gates of Number 10 Downing Street, and set himself on fire. There was a mention of it on the 6 o’clock news; a brief mention of it on the news at 10, and a few weeks later, some photos of his widow in the papers. An anti-capitalist hero it seems is not quite so acceptable for our roster of champions.” Moore believes, that while there are undoubtedly many people of courage and conviction, the concept of heroism “is primarily a tool for social and political manipulation.”

But there is an interesting irony, in the fact that one of the key ways that the symbols from V for Vendetta became so ubiquitous were due to its film adaptation, which he claimed at the time to have “cursed from afar.” The common view of Moore is that he has a deep animus against film, but he dismisses this. Instead, he says, his anger with Hollywood comes from how its dearth of ideas lead it to butcher its source material, and also an overreliance on CGI, which he calls, “a cancer on the human imagination.” He talks liberally of his deep admiration for many of the greats – Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Jean Coctreau.

He tells me his primary project right now is currently a film with auteur Mitch Jenkins, a blend of occultism and film noir called Jimmy’s End. It seems a huge leap into the dark for someone who has a famous disregard for technology. He tells me that he views information technology as, “a huge social experiment,” of which we have no idea of the consequences. “I find the rise of technology incredibly fascinating. But we have absolutely no idea where this thing will end up, and I would rather be outside the petri dish, than inside it.”

The conversation presently turns to what it is that has driven this bearded giant of a man to begin his various iconic projects. “If a piece of art is possible, it’s probably not worth doing. I need to be unsure whether I or anybody else could do it. That’s what gives me the sense of excitement, but that’s what any writer should be going for. You need to plot your own path to where you think you should be headed. Art should have no bearing on popularity; back when I did Watchmen, flawed superheroes in a dark world was not a fashionable thing. No one thought they would actually enjoy a hero in such a world. Had I been in it for riches or fame, it would have been only to pander to the lowest common denominator; to write Watchmen 2,3,4, the prequels, V for Vendetta 2,3,4.”

But for Moore, there is no attraction to be had from creating for any reason other than to challenge yourself or your audience, and he has scorn for Samuel Johnson’s quip that “only a fool writes for anything but money.” “If Johnson really believed that he would have made a fantastic living churning out cheap sensationalist pornography, rather than toiling undiscovered for years on his great dictionary.” Speaking of pornography, what of Moore’s own delvings into what he claims can be as much an art form as any other? “We thought almost every area of human experience was celebrated in movies, books, paperbacks and the arts except the most universal – our sexuality. We decided to do a confrontationally pornographic work, but  to do it beautifully – one that looked exquisite, that would force people to at least reconsider the possibilities of the erotic or pornographic. Although it has some highly contentious areas of sexuality, it has surprisingly not been subject to lawsuits, the reviewers have understood it, which showed that, by and large, it succeeded in its purpose.”

Giving his candid approach to controversial topics, I chose to probe him on another; drugs. In his youth, Moore has described himself as “the most inept LSD dealer in the world.” Did he still think of drugs as a reservoir of creative potential?

“There is a huge unacknowledged role played by psychedelics in the creative world. I have been reading a book called The Anarchy of Science, which says something about how scientists are unable or unwilling to explain the sources of their inspiration. It is said that Francis Crick got the secret of DNA while on LSD. It is said that Einstein first grasped the Theory of Relativity from a vision where he saw himself running along side a beam of light. Many of the great Decadents; Oscar Wilde, Baudeliere or Hieronymous Bosch took inspiration from Absinthe and St Antony’s fire. The very word psychedelic itself comes from the Greek word; psyche, to explore, and delos, the soul. The exploration of the soul. Is there any more pithy or potent definition of what art is all about?”

 

PHOTOS // Glen Marks, Kradlum, el Pachinko, Loz Flowers, skenmy (in the order they appear)

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