Alan Moore: Could it be magic?
Hollywood may love Alan Moore, but the cult graphic novelist sets his artistic sights higher. Roz Kaveney talks to him about Kabbala, comics and consciousness
Friday 04 November 2005
Moore has changed the face of graphic novels, so that we hardly talk about "comics" any more, but that, luckily, does not make him a celebrity. "It means nothing if a million people know your name," he says. "I didn't sign up for that." One of the many themes which have permeated his work since he first started to be noticed for his issues of DC Comics Swamp Thing in the early 1980s is his distaste for the way the mass media turn sometimes quite ordinary people into celebrities, "fuel rods for the Murdoch empire", then spit them out as drug-addicted or merely boring, only to rediscover them years later as ironic icons. The work is what is important: if Moore's name is something that the industry uses to shift product, that is because Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and all the rest are outstanding, inventive pieces of work.
His house is just one of a long brick terrace; inside, it is blue and starry. His bath is on a Hollywood scale: a friend who works in fibre-glass got on the wrong side of the local heavies, and Moore settled his debt and took it out in trade. This is the house of a working writer; cases of editions of his work litter the office floor. It is also the home of a working magician, decorated with ritual wands from the Golden Dawn, falcon masks and the haunting art of the occultist Austin Osman Spare. This makes for an appropriately strange setting for the recluse whom Iain Sinclair has described as "the last sane man in England".
"Magic and Art are the same," he affirms. "Which is why Magic is referred to as The Great Art. They are both technologies of Will, both about pulling rabbits out of hats and creating something where there was nothing." Moore and the artist J H Williams have just published the fifth and final volume of Promethea (America's Best Comics/Titan, £24.99), which is partly a superhero comic about a young woman coming into mystic power at the end of the second millennium, and partly a course of instruction in magic and the occult. It is funny and exciting, and somehow you don't feel quite the same after reading it; it's a book that leaves you with a sense of the connectedness of things. A bestselling piece of commercial art, Promethea is also as much Moore's grimoire as the two CDs of his ritual performances, The Highbury Working and Snakes and Ladders.
"Books of magic are always written in high metaphor," he explains. "They are about our relationship to consciousness and how we construe it." Consciousness is the hole in rationalism. You cannot reproduce it in a laboratory, which is why some rationalist philosophers like Dan Dennett try to deny the shared experience of knowing that there is a "how" to how we feel. For Moore, magic is a way of breaking the paradigm, of making sense of our lives as we live them.
He is distrustful of many things about magic and the occult: "When I talk about Kabbala, it is a coherent system for organising our understanding of things and the connections between them, not wearing a red string on your wrist or drinking expensive bottled water." One of the most beautiful sections of Promethea is a prolonged wander through the Sephirothim, the realms of reality described by the Kabbala, which are cognate with the planets of non-predictive astrology and with the effects of colour on our moods. Thus, one issue is largely green and discusses that oceanic feeling of belonging and being nurtured that is associated with Venus; it is also Williams's tribute to the swirly softness of Alphonse Mucha and much Underground art of the 1960s.
Promethea was also about setting himself and Williams challenges. After the episode in which they had presented the history of the world as a tarot deck, it had to be a matter of ever-escalating virtuoso explorations of different styles of comics and of occult art. The last issue, for example, in which everything we have learned about magic is recapitulated, is designed both page by page, and to fold out as two large posters of Promethea.
"One of the problems with the occult is the vested interest of most occultists in obfuscation," says Moore. "They sell the possibilities of magic short and lose touch with reality." In Promethea, partly because it is also a high-octane story about the misunderstood Sophie Bangs (whom the FBI are chasing for fear that she will destroy the world), Moore is free to talk more or less clearly about what, for example, the end of the world means. As Promethea, Sophie does, in a sense, end the world; she makes everyone see things in a new light: "It was always going to be a book about Apocalypse. Then issue 17, which had as its teaser for the next issue Panic in Manhattan, Hell on Earth, appeared in mid- September 2001."
Promethea is only one, though perhaps the most interesting, of the projects Moore has been doing for his imprint America's Best Comics. There is Tom Strong, with its deliberate evocation of a more innocent era of chunky, brilliant heroes who make peace with menaces as often as they fight them. There is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a piece of cynical Victoriana in which Alan Quartermain, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man join forces against Chinese warlords and Martian invaders, and there is the sardonic anthology series, Terrific Tales.
My personal favourite is Top Ten and its just-published prequel The 49ers, which are smart, humane and funny, but also a nuanced meditation on the "heroic" part of the concept of the superhero. They are, effectively, a version of The Bill or Hill Street Blues set in Neopolis, where everyone is a superhero, a robot, a vampire or a god. "I had been thinking about why superhero team-up comics almost never work," says Moore, "and I think it is because you have to set your team against ever-escalating menaces. And I had been thinking about the ensemble in cop shows."
This is, quite possibly, one of Alan Moore's swansongs in the traditional comics industry. Gerald Jonas in his book Men of Tomorrow documented the way that the creators of comics' most enduring icons - Superman and Batman - were cheated by businessmen who had a more than passing association with the Mafia. Things may have changed, but not enough. "Proper grown-up writers have a moral right to their work - it says so right there on the page," says Moore.
Specifically, he hates the way that many of his colleagues get excited when a wonderful comic book gets turned into a worthless movie franchise. He is in the process of severing his links with DC as a result of a press release which said that he was enthusiastic about the forthcoming film of V for Vendetta. On the contrary, "I have made it clear that I want nothing to do with films of my work. I don't want my name on them and I insist that the money go to other creators."
In 2006, Moore and his partner Melinda Gebbie will be publishing Lost Girls, a graphic novel that explores the erotic and the pornographic; it is startling and innovative, and the artwork is quite remarkably beautiful.
In the summer of 1914, at a spa in Austria, three women of varying ages meet, and talk about their sexual awakenings. Since the three women in question are Alice, Wendy and Dorothy - the protagonists of three of the most metaphor-rich children's books of literary history - their conversations stray into some weird and wonderful territory. "Why can't a pornographic graphic novel be as fine as anything in the field, and still be sexy?" Moore asks. For all his disillusion with the actual industry, Alan Moore is as in love as ever with the wonderful possibilities of hybrid comics to do things that no other art form can manage.
Alan Moore was born in 1953 in Northampton, where he still lives. In the 1970s he co-founded an underground magazine, Embryo. He came to prominence as a comics writer with the dystopian V for Vendetta (1982). Working for DC Comics in the 1980s, he created Swamp Thing and Watchmen. In 1988, Watchmen became the first graphic work to win a Hugo science-fiction award. He also contributed influential new stories for Batman and Superman. After 1988, Moore worked for small companies, producing graphic novels such as From Hell. Moore now has his own imprint, America's Best Comics, a vehicle for series such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea, the final volume of which has just appeared. Adaptations of his work include the films of From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a film of V for Vendetta due next year. In 2006, Moore and his partner, Melinda Gebbie, will publish their erotic graphic novel, Lost Girls.
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