Posted: March 17, 2011
Interviewed by Chris Richards, March 2011
Alan Moore is the acclaimed author of such titles as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Swamp Thing, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Promethia, Neonomicon, The Lost Girls, and countless others. His work has revolutionized comics. He is a magician, writer, artist, musician, and a really interesting person to interview!
Can you give us a brief explanation of who you are and what it is that you do?
I hope I can be brief, I’m Alan Moore, and I have managed to remain in my birthplace of Northampton for my 57 years on the planet thus far. I am probably best known for my work writing comic books, although my disenchantment with the comic industry has led me to put as much blue water between myself and comics as I can. That is not to say I don’t still enjoy working in the medium, which I do, but I have no desire to work anywhere near the industry, which I think is a vile place. I have recently been expanding into other areas that I’m interested in, which had taken a bit of a backseat when my entire life got hijacked by the American comics industry. These include a second novel that I’m working on, which is consuming a lot of my time at the moment, called Jerusalem. Jerusalem is entirely about the half a square mile that I grew up in, which was originally the entirety of the town of Northampton. I’ve only just got back on to writing Jerusalem after taking about 18 months off to oversee my beautiful, courageous, but probably ultimately doomed, underground magazine Dodgem Logic. We are going take a break on Dodgem Logic simply because we’ve been losing money on it, and when I say we I mean me. I’ve really loved it, every moment of it, I’m really incredibly proud of the entire venture but we should have probably at least had a plan A. We simply can’t carry on producing the magazine to its current high standard, so we are going to take a break and see if there is a viable way to do this. The prospects are looking pretty good. I’m also messing around with musical projects and doing a little bit of standup now and again. Basically, spreading out and having fun in a lot of the areas that I used to play around in back when I was a teenager with the Northampton Art Lab. So, my career has pretty much come full circle without every having left the spot that which I’m currently standing. That’s pretty much the short answer to your question.
What goals do you have for your art and its impact on the world?
Well when I started out I was I think 25, or thereabouts. That is when I actually first managed to make a meager living from writing, drawing, or both. I had initially started out with the Northampton Art Lab which was a fantastic movement instigated by the great bohemian Jim Haynes., who started the Art Lab movement in Britain by suggesting that there is nothing to prevent likeminded people from hiring a room once a week, from getting together, from putting out magazines, or putting on performances. The Art Lab movement pretty much sprang up from there. I was involved in the Northampton Art Lab when I was 16 or 17, and that was incredible grounding because it was politicized right from the start. This was all part of the counterculture, which was in the air at the time. While it obviously had a lot of flaws in its execution, I still believe that the counterculture had some incredibly valid elements in it. I was expelled from school at the age of 17, probably quite deservingly, as I was dealing LSD, which I was aware was against the law, so I probably can’t complain too much. This had put a little bit of a damper upon my future development, in that the head master at the school that I was at had rather taken me personally and had written letters to any of the educational establishments that I might have gone to. The art schools and colleges had basically been told not to take me on as a pupil because I would lay ruin to the moral fabric of the rest of their pupils. This also extended to getting a job, which even then needed a reference from your previous place of employment or your previous school. The kind of things I was getting were the antimatter equivalent of references. So, I had a series of fairly bleak jobs until I finally managed to get indoors out of the rain, and was doing an unrewarding and fairly dull office job. At the age of about 25 I suddenly thought, I had always wanted to be able to express myself through my art and to support myself with my art, rather than spend my life doing something that I didn’t want to do. So I decided it would be a good time to actually make the jump. I was married but it seemed to me that I could live off of social security for a few months, or a year, until I established myself as an artist, writer, or both; because back then I still had delusions of adequacy as an artist. I quit my job at work, and I think that same morning received a phone call from my wife saying she was pregnant with what turned out to be our first daughter. Which put me in a bit of a predicament, as it did seem rather reckless to throw up a dependable, though dull, job with a baby on the way. On the other hand if I’d waited until the baby was born, I would probably never have had the courage to make that kind of move. So I went ahead with it, I quit my job and I did basically nothing for about a year. I did nothing very elaborately. I started a lot of projects which were far too big to ever finish, and that was their appeal. I knew if I finished a project I’d have to send it in and it would have to be judged. So I was taking on projects that I was clearly never going to finish, which I think is something that a lot of people do; they do that or the equivalent of it. They would rather have the dream that they could have been somebody of importance or ability, rather than risk actually putting their dreams to the test and ending up without even the dream. I realized that is what I was doing, and also realized it was the most stupid and self defeating thing that I could possibly do. I decided that this was all entirely in my hands, that there was no conspiracy trying to stop me from getting what I wanted, and at the same time there was no super best friends who were trying to help me to get where I wanted, it was entirely up to me. Once that little light bulb had gone on in my head I realized that I should just do something that I thought would be appropriate, send it in to somewhere, and if it got rejected, do something else. I did a fairly half baked comic strip for possible inclusion in one of the music papers that was over here at the time, Sounds. I got a telegram, we didn’t have telephones at the time, asking me to get in touch and saying that they’d like to run the strip. This was the start of my career, and all it really took was me making the decision I was responsible for my own life, for my failures and for my successes, should there be any. Taking responsible for something, I have found, tends to give you power over it. Taking responsibility for yourself, certainly gives you power over yourself, and that is the only power I’m politically comfortable with. Power over others is tyranny, in whatever context it occurs, whether it is in a nation or in a family. Whereas power of one’s self is a necessity for being a complete human being. So, I had managed to strike it lucky and was making, with the addition of another 5 panel gag strip in a local paper, about 45 pounds a week. This was about 2 pounds more than I was drawing in benefits on the social security. That was a narrow margin, but it made me an honest man, and I became a professional writer. But, right from the start, that left me with the basic issue of what do I want to write about and what do I want to say. I was still very much under the influence of the moral and political ideas that I formed when I was a teenager, and I’m embarrassed to say that I probably still am. When I was a teenage boy I came up with a ridiculous, poorly thought through, fantasy image of the kind of figure I might want to be when I was older. And horrifically, this seems to have come completely true down to the last detail. My agendas were set then, I’d like to think they’ve become more sophisticated and more complex, but the basic morality and ethics was probably determined when I was 18 or 19. And so with the Arts Lab, seeing as it was the 60’s, it had been almost an imperative to not simply say something for the sake of saying it, there should be a moral or a political dimension to it. A dimension that was informative on an important level. At the time I was doing a doughty strip about a delusional alcoholic who believed himself to be a private eye for the music papers, and I was doing a 5 panel gag strip about a talking cat for the local paper. But, these still provided vehicles for me to occasionally say something. Surprisingly enough, the talking cat strip soon became one of my favorite projects in that it became a vehicle whereby I could respond incredibly quickly to anything that was in the news. I would be doing these strips on the morning of the deadline. So anything that had been in the news, I could get it into that weeks strip. And I was allowed quite a lot of leeway after it became obvious that the readership actually quite liked the strip. So I started introducing characters such as, I think during the Chernobyl incident, Nicolai the Nonconformist Nuclear Death Cloud. So I was able to sort of make comments, not particularly shrewd or witty comments, but I was able respond to things like the Falklands War, the Chernobyl incident, and various other political events from around the world. In the rock and roll strip, for the music paper, I was able to get over some kind of junky radical political opinions. Nothing I’d want to put too much weight on, but the attempt was there. When I decided I couldn’t draw quickly or well enough to make a living as a cartoonist, and moved to being a writer, I took the same sensibilities with me. I was writing short backup stories for 2000AD and I was learning my craft, but at the same time I still wanted to be able to make statements. I remember one of the earliest stories that I was most pleased with was something called ‘Grawks Bearing Gifts’ in 2000AD, which in I have a bunch of ruckus, vulgar aliens landing upon earth and basically doing to us what the American settlers did to the native Americans. Conning us out of of our land, destroying our way of life, and then putting us on reservations as a kind of tourist attraction. Like I said, not the most subtle political analogy, but I was pleased with it, at that stage of my career to be able to get a story like that published in 2000AD. I decided to try and push it further. At that time I was limited to the fact that I was only trusted to do 6 or 7 page backup stories. I was trying to tell the most relevant stories that I could within that space, but there was still limitations. When I first got my continuing strips in British comics, and particularly V for Vendetta, I was given a chance to tell, as long as it was an adventure strip that hit all the right buttons for the adventure audience that it was aimed at, I was given the freedom to make it anything else that I wanted to. What I wanted to do was make it a parable to talk about my then formative ideas about Anarchy and Fascism, which I saw as being the two poles of the political landscape. Anarchy means no leaders, and that seems to imply that if you are not going to follow a leader, then that would require you becoming your own leader, which to me seems to imply taking responsibility for yourself, your thoughts, and your actions. Which, like I said, is the first step to serious empowerment. Fascism, on the other hand is a complete abdication of responsibility. It is placing all the responsibility into the state, so that at the war crime trials you’ll be able to say ‘I was only obeying the orders’. These, to me, seem to be the two poles of politics, fascism and anarchy. Everything else seems to almost be on a scale between them. So with V for Vendetta I was able to explore those ideas and express them in comics for what I believe was probably the first time. I started to realize the incredible potential in the comic’s medium for expressing radical ideas. By the time I had gotten on to Swamp Thing, for DC in about 82, something like that, I saw it as a potential vehicle for talking about environmental politics, among other things. Throughout my career, while I’ve always tried to be entertaining, I don’t think that just being entertaining is absolutely enough. I think that to be able to say something beautifully is great, but you need to have something meaningful to say. So I’ve always seen my art in whatever form, in some degree, as propaganda, not for a nation state but propaganda for a state of mind. I believe that, possibly, is all that art can or should ever be, anybody’s art. That we are all getting the bulletin from our isolated little independent nation states, putting it in a language that we hope can communicate what we wanted to express, and then sending it out there hoping it reaches people that can use that type of information. I tend to feel that in the present day, I don’t know about America but certainly in England, the education system isn’t working. It has not worked for decades, and while I wouldn’t claim to be completely impartial, I am not just saying that because they expelled me from school. I believe that education is probably the most important thing, and I really don’t think that the way we handle it is working. Also, I don’t think it is in the interest of any of our governments to properly educate us. Why would they want us smart and pissed off? That doesn’t necessarily benefit them. I tend to believe that it is on us to educate ourselves. That is certainly what I did after the truncation of my education. I, at the age of 17, was pretty alienated from my school career, but there was lot of things I was interested in, so I just plugged into the local library system and let my brain absorb everything it could. And I’m quite pleased with the way my self education has turned out. On Friday I’m going to lecture at the University of Lester. I would never go to a University or a college, I can’t stand the places, but it does give me a certain amount of satisfaction to go along and be the type of person that education systems like to invite along to talk to their pupils. I find that quite ironic and it is quite a lot of fun, I enjoy doing it. But, I think if there is a massive flaw in the way we educate ourselves as a species, then that puts a tremendous weight of responsibility on artists, entertainers, and performers. I know some of the very best standup comedians in the country, I’ve become quite friendly with them lately, and I remember a quote, I don’t remember who it was from, but it said stand up comedians are the unacknowledged secret legislatures of our time. I think that is a lovely quote and there is some truth in it. The comedian, the fool if you like, is allowed to say things no one else is allowed to say. He/she can criticize social institutions form the safety of his or her fool persona. It is the way jesters were always allowed to mock the king, and I think there are a lot of comedians who are joining the struggle. Some of the performances I’ve gone to recently would include the ones that comedian Robin Ince had been putting on at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London around Christmas time. I think they generally have a title like ‘Christmas Carols for Godless Children’. They are for rationalists who are violently opposed to the creationist and intelligent design ideas that are creeping across the Atlantic. So, you get a mixture of scientists, comedians, and people like me, sort of occult snake worshipers who aren’t really sure why they’ve been invited. But we seem to get on all right, and a lot of the comedy addresses political issues and, like I say, I think its expedient for any musician, or comedian, or artist, or writer, or comic book professional for that matter, to speak out whatever they believe in. To actually say something rather than simply providing more acreage of bland entertainment, stuff that is meant only to occupy another half hour or so of the audience’s largely empty lives. That’s not what art should be for, art shouldn’t be a sedative. It shouldn’t be too make us feel better about the dismal circumstances in which we’re being forced to live. Art should be a stimulant, it should be a psychedelic, it should be something that generally opens the mind, which gives you information that you hadn’t had before, and gives you different possibilities for how to interact with the world. And so I’d say, that is probably my agenda.
You have a very wide range of topics and themes covered throughout your titles, from directly political pieces such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen, to the environmental with Swamp Thing, to the metaphysical with Promethia and Neonomicon. Is there a unified message expressed throughout all these works?
They are all coming from the same person, so they will be reflecting parts of my psyche and my interests. Yes, I am interested in environmentalism, so Swamp Thing was the result of that. I’m very interested in sexuality and sexual politics and that has expressed itself through various things, such as Swamp Thing, Marvelman, and probably coming to a culmination with Lost Girls; where I was investigating ideas about erotica, our sexual responses and when it is ok to talk about something. We enjoyed doing it, Malinda and I, and we were very interested in the response because it was taken very seriously as a work of art. It was not taken as a cheap pornography, and after spending 16 or 18 years on it, we were quite glad of that. I would say there is probably not a single unified thing except for diversity itself, there is no reason why we have to specialize as human beings. Yes, I know that we are told in school that it makes the administration neater if we specialize in one subject, and then go onto a job that is related to that subject. But, I don’t think that is natural in terms of the human urge to learn about everything. I don’t know if you’ve got children or know any small babies, but you can see in the way that a baby behaves that it is a natural sponge for information. It wants to know about everything, everything in the universe. I think that’s one of my main grudges against the education system. If anything, it tends to act as aversion therapy and will actually put people off from learning and anything that even resembles learning. People will very seldom read a book when they get home from work in the evening because they associate books with learning, learning with work, and work with drudgery. Instead, they will sit on the sofa and watch some soap operas, which might be tedious, boring, and pointless, but at least they can be sure that it won’t be trying to teach them anything. I think that our natural inclination as human beings is towards diversity, and I think that is true in the arts as well. I always try to encourage my own daughters; you don’t have to be one thing, you can be 50 things if you like. I can write very well, and I can write in a number of areas very well. I write very good songs, and I write good comics, and I think the novel that I’m doing at the moment is pretty good. I’m not that good as an artist but I enjoy drawing, so I continue to try to express myself through art. I’m no good as a musician but I can carry a tune and I’m a fairly good performer as I can talk to an audience. There is no reason why I shouldn’t explore all of these things, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t explore all of these things. Having spent a decade, at least, railing against the film industry and its idiocies, I’m perversely involved in a 10 minute short film at the moment. There is no reason to limit yourself. It makes it easier for society to pigeonhole you, but what is to societies advantage is not necessarily to yours. I would advise people to be as diverse and various as they have a will to be, and that is probably the message across my books, in the sexual politics, the straightforward politics, the materials about metaphysics and magic, and the environmentalism. There is no need to limit yourself. In the case of magic, there is no reason to even limit yourself to strict rationality. The mind is a free and open place; we’ve got some extraordinary things in here if we’d just bother to look for them and to dig them out. I am trying, I suppose, in the breath of my work to explore what I single human imagination is capable of. That’s not just my human imagination. Imagination is like a muscle, as I think Peter Blegvad said, ‘imagination, like a muscle, will increase with exercise’, and I think that is true, none of us have great imaginations when we start out. My first few stories are dull, I hadn’t really put myself into the mother load of my imagination, but you do this stuff everyday of your working life, and unless you are particularly dense, you are going to learn a few tricks. You’re going to learn a few things, you’re going to importantly learn how to connect with your own, I believe, sacred and holy human imagination. This is the doorway to everything; to all material success, to all metaphysical, moral, and intellectual success. You have to be able to imagine a state before you can possibly get there. Imagination is the key to everything. It is capable of extraordinary things, if there is one thing that all of my works is saying it is probably that. Check out your own imagination, see what it can do, I think that you’ll be genuinely surprised.
What place do speculative fiction, storytelling, and other forms of art have in activism and the social change movement?
Well, speculative fiction, good term. When I was 14, this would have been before I had plunged into the world of 60’s counterculture as completely and disastrously as I did, I was a huge fan of Michael Moorcock. I was a huge fan of his Elric stories, his sword and sorcery. When I heard he was the editor of a science fiction magazine called ‘New Worlds’, I thought this sounds fantastic, I bet it’s going to be full stories about sickly albino barbarians with their soul drinking wooden swords. I was 14 and emotionally unbalanced in the way all 14 year olds are, and Michael Moorcock did right some very good sword and sorcery stories. I picked up New Worlds and realized at the age of 14 that it wasn’t like any science fiction stories I had previously read. This was proper speculative fiction; it was people like J.G. Ballard and M. John Harrison, John Sladek, wonderful writers, and Moorcock himself of course. A couple of American imports like Samuel Delaney and Norman Spinrad, and this was incredibly radical, it seemed that Moorcock had hijacked the term science fiction and made it a vehicle for modernist experimental fiction. It was incredible, it was a real rush. The stories, not all of them, were instantly understandable, some of them were cryptic or oblique, but they all spoke of a different world that was approaching. It was quite an alarming world, nothing like the standard science fiction idea of how we are going to expand into space and colonize all these planets and make them just like the western world back here on Earth. No, this was full of radical guilt, it suggested that the future would not be full of robots and ray guns and spaceships and adventures, that it would be full of chaos and psychological collapse. A world where people had no idea what was going on or how should they should react to it anymore. The world of JG Ballard with his people becoming obsessed with celebrity car crashes. How strange and alien that seemed at the time, this of course was before we had a Princess Diana to see what this kind of stuff is like in real life. John Sladek, with his apparently irrelevant obsession with cryptology and codes. As if the future was going to have anything to do with cryptology and codes, but actually that’s how it turned out. So, in the speculative fiction of the new world school, which was radical, there were an awful lot of different political possibilities and artistic possibilities being communicated. Rather than the actually reassuring and reactionary old school science fiction, which is just saying that the future of the human race is glorious and we’ll be able to keep doing what we are doing all over the galaxy. Actually, that’s not going to happen, the new wave science fiction writers had got it right. It is very doubtful that we’ll ever get beyond the confines of this solar system, because we have neglected to take care of the one habitable place that we happen to be living. So, I say that speculative fiction gives us a way to conceive of the future and it can provide some stark warnings. But, it depends what it is used for. If its used radically, it can be incredibly mind expanding, and a very useful political and moral tool for exploring thought experiments, of what would it be like if this happened, or what would it be like if that happened. Of course, speculative fiction can also be used for sheer escapism, which is the exact opposite of anything that is politically useful. Escapist science fiction at this particularly moment is probably the opium of the masses. It is a potentially wonderful tool, but with great potential for misuse.
What connections do you see with magic and art, and with magic and activism?
I’d say that magic and art to me are synonymous. I believe that the world of art would be greatly enriched if the people doing it were to treat it as if they were doing magic. I think that the art scene at the moment over here with the new British artists, who seem to be largely lazy conceptualist, is putting forward a kind of half concept, more of a concept in the advertising sense than the art sense. Its lazy, its empty, there is no passion behind it, no fire. If they were to regard their work as magic, we would start to see some real powerful art again. Most of the artists in the past who we’ve admired at least believed there was a magically element in their work. Some really surprising ones, people like Mondrian, who you would think was a strict rationalist with all those carefully measured little boxes, but no, we was a theosophist. He was using those ratios and colors to express theosophical ideas. Picasso spent his youth completely absorbed in hashish and mysticism. Most of the great musicians, the great artists, the surrealists were taking their cues from alchemy. Marcel Duchamp, his work ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ as an alchemical work. Monteverdi invented opera, and was an alchemist. He invented opera as a form of art that would be able to express alchemical ideas. Art and magic are kind of interchangeable, but if people would treat art as magic, it is my contention that they would probably do better art. Conversely, I think that if people were treating magic as art, then they would be doing better magic. I’m not massively impressed with the occult scene in the present day. I think that if they would regard what they were doing as a form of art, then at least they’d be getting something creative out of all those rituals and lodge meetings. Something they could actually show to other people, something that might be a benefit to human culture. That has be a win-win situation I would have thought. As for how magic and activism fit together, I’ve said before that I’m an anarchist. Anarchy is to me, the opposite pole of the political spectrum as fascism. Fascism comes from the roman term for the bundle of twigs used to make the fascia of the house. The theory behind it is ‘In Unity there is Strength’. That is basically all that fascism is saying, that one twig will break but a bundle of bound twigs bound together in one belief will be strong. That’s fascism, where as anarchy is saying no leaders, it is celebrating diversity. The word religion, if you look that up in a dictionary, has the same root as words like ligature and ligament, which basically means bound together in one belief. It doesn’t even have to be a spiritual belief. Marxism is a religion by that definition. Atheism is a religion by that definition. I believe that sometimes you can see in the pronouncement of Richard Dawkins, an almost religious dogma which I don’t approve of. I know this is a bit extreme but it seems to me that religion and fascism have a kind of equivalence in the political and spiritual arenas. They are both talking about binding together in one belief with other people, which I find, as an anarchist, completely unnatural. Magic, conversely, I would see as a spiritual equivalent to anarchy, in that magic is purely the relationship of an individual with the universe. It is not a religion, you can worship a 2nd century snake god that you are fully aware was an elaborate sock puppet. The reason I do worship my 2nd century sock puppet snake god Glycon is precisely because nobody is going to be mad enough to worship a creature like that. I am not going to be saddled with a religion. I use Glycon as a focal point or symbol through which I make my own peace with the universe, and through which I hopefully understand the universe a little better. It is purely a thing of the individual. Even in things like Kabbalah, it is recognized that you’re Kabbalah and my Kabbalah may be completely different. Everybody has their own equivalent of this system, so to me as an anarchist, certainly magic is a much more comfortable and conducive system. It seems to fit with anarchy, whereas, to me, it seems fascism and religion have a certain parallel. Also, in terms of magic, magic includes everything in your life. It is not purely about some abstract other realm, although it touches on abstract other realms. It is about everything in your life, its about how you live, its about how you bring up your children, it is about how you educate yourself, it is about your sex life, it is about your political life, all of these things are kind of indivisible. We live in a reductionist society that likes to break everything down into manageable compartments. I can see why that was necessary when we were faced with a hugely incomprehensible universe, and reductionism was our best way of patiently coming to understand it. But reductionism can lead to a situation where you got people isolated in their own little pockets of knowledge with no way to talking to each other. Where they don’t even share the same language anymore, and where there are parts of their existence that they feel alienated from. From their religious lives, or their spiritual lives, or their sex lives, or their political lives, I think that one of the benefits of magic is that it integrates the whole of your experience into one way of seeing, one way of understanding. My last conversation with my great friend Kathy Acker, who passed away in the late 90’s, a very radical writer, author of ‘Blood of Guts in High School’, and numerous other scandalous works. Just after I got into magic I met up with Kathy and told her what had been happening and I said I was getting the feeling that magic was the last and boldest work of revolution. She was saying she had some experiences and she was starting to feel exactly the same way. With magic you’re not attempting to change the nature of the government. You are not attempting to change one government for another government. What you are attempting to do is to change reality or the way that you see it.
Do you have advice for other writers, musicians, or artists who are creating politically focused art?
My advice is to find your own voice. You’ll probably be echoing other peoples voices when you are in your formative stages, but if you echo enough of them your own will emerge. Finding your own voice depends on finding your own way of seeing the world. Once you have a way at looking at the world that is coherent and works for you and seems to be lucid, then express that. It will be difficult at first, because however well you express it, it will not be as beautiful, clear, or sharp as the vision you saw in your mind. And perhaps it never will be. But if you keep working at it then eventually you will be better at expressing the stuff that you’ve got inside you. The important thing is to have something inside you to start with. There are wonderful artists who say I’m not a particularly great draftsmen, there are people who are good writers who don’t have a particularly good vocabulary or grasp of grammar. The important thing is to have that fire inside you. The technique is important too, but you can learn technique, that will come if you just keep practicing. I will also say if you are not a published, well known, or rich artist or writer, don’t worry about that. That has nothing to do with art. You know how great an artist, writer, or creator you are, any faults of flaws that you have, try to eliminate them, try to improve. Then I suggest that if you do that, if you make peace between yourself and your art you will have made the kind of peace between yourself and your universe that I was talking about as being central to magic. I’d say that is probably the best advice that I can give. Oh, and don’t trust whitey.