Alan Moore: The reluctant hero

A museum in Belgium is hosting an exhibition of his work, but the graphic novelist Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, won't be going. Jeremy Duns meets the cult British writer to find out why

The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi is a fitting place for an exhibition on Alan Moore. Belgium, after all, is the home of the comic strip, with Tintin, Lucky Luke and The Smurfs all originating there. And, like Moore's hometown of Northampton, Charleroi is a former industrial hub not far from the capital. "Alan Moore: Les Dessins du Magicien" is part of the city's ongoing campaign to shed its image as a cheap but uncomfortable coach journey from Brussels, and reinvent itself as an art-lovers' destination. Put together by Paul Gravett, an internationally renowned expert on comic-book art (he also curated last year's Comica festival at the ICA), the exhibition features a mass of original, rare or never-seen-before art created for Alan Moore works over the last 25 years, as well as previewing The Mindscape of Alan Moore, an 80-minute documentary on the writer.

"It's an enormous honour," Moore says of the show. "Even if it makes me feel like I'm almost dead." Fans from around the globe will flock to the exhibition, but Moore admits that he probably won't get to it himself unless it transfers to London (as Gravett hopes). "I don't even have a passport," he says, and points out that in today's political climate anyone looking like him (ie, Old Testament prophet/Motörhead roadie) probably wouldn't even be allowed on the plane.

Moore is famously eccentric, and one can't help feeling that he relishes the reputation. On turning 50 last year, he announced that he was retiring from mainstream comics to devote himself to magic. He converted to gnosticism in the mid-1990s, and is fond of stating that he worships the Roman snake-god Glycon. More recently, he claimed to have had information that the world will end between 2012 and 2017. He has also written and starred in his own magick extravaganzas, one-off mixed-media stage performances such as Birth Caul (Shamanism of Childhood) of 1995, a spoken-word piece dealing with the death of his mother. In 1999, he took part in Ananke, a London event billed as a "symposium of real magick and global ritualism" - Moore took his audience on a wild tour of the capital's secret past - themes he would also touch on in From Hell. More recently, in his extravagantly illustrated series Promethea, he attempted to provide an overarching diagram of occult lore.

The Charleroi retrospective has fun with Moore's image, presenting the stands in a cabbalistic pattern, and placing a single lit candle on one of his old computer keyboards (which he accurately remembers as being filled with "hair, dust, hashish and ash"). He's delighted that the Charleroi show takes on a cabbalistic pattern. "That shows real care," he says, admiringly.

Regardless of the Aleister Crowley persona, Moore is a towering figure on the international comic-book scene. His best-known work, Watchmen, of 1987, was a 400-page deconstruction of the superhero myth that revitalised the comics industry and brought us the phrase "graphic novel". For the first time, comic books were taken out of the clutches of adolescent boys and into the homes of adults.

Moore discovered comics pre-adolescence, but it wasn't until he fell ill and his mother bought him a copy of The Fantastic Four by mistake (he'd wanted Blackhawk) that he became truly obsessed. During his teens, he devoured copies of Mad, Oz and the works of Robert Crumb. By his twenties, he was writing and drawing strips for Sounds and the NME (some of which are on show in Charleroi).

He soon realised that he was never going to be a great artist, and so devoted himself to writing scripts for 2000AD and, later, Warrior. There he wrote MarvelMan and V For Vendetta, among others, before being hired by DC, one of the two American giants in the field, which asked him to reinvent its moribund Swamp Thing series. Groundbreaking work on Superman ("The Man Who Has Everything" and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?") and Batman ("The Killing Joke") followed, before the graphic novel Watchmen rocketed him into the stratosphere.

Moore eventually fell out with DC, became a hired hand, and finally set up his own company, rather ironically titled America's Best Comics. His recent successes have included From Hell, his re-examination of Jack the Ripper, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brought together characters from the works of Bram Stoker, Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard, and others. Both of these have recently been filmed, the former with Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, the latter with Sean Connery and Peta Wilson. From Hell transformed Moore's layered text into Grand Guignol, while LXG (as it was marketed) added explosions and a new character, Tom Sawyer, to gratify American audiences. Moore still hasn't seen either film, but has clearly heard enough about them. His initial attitude towards adaptations was neutral: he wouldn't take the credit or the blame. Now he's changed his mind.

"I thought that by not getting involved, I could keep a distance between the books and the films," he says. He now realises that this was naive, as most film-goers would presume any film to be reasonably faithful to his work. Having "learnt his lesson", he has told his agents to reject any proposals to film his work, and in the case of work he no longer owns, to insist that his name be taken off any adaptation and his share of the money be divided among the artists.

Moore may have had enough of Hollywood, but it hasn't had its fill of him. Constantine, based on a character he created for Swamp Thing, is due out before the end of the year, with a woefully miscast Keanu Reeves in the title role. Moore didn't grant his permission for the adaptation: he doesn't own the rights to the character, so he had no say either way. Neither does he have any control over Watchmen, which is due to start shooting in Prague this year, from a script by David X-Men Hayter. (A screenplay that the Wachowski Brothers wrote for V For Vendetta around the time they were writing the first Matrix film may be a few years off, however: its hero is a terrorist.)

With his name removed from these and any other projects Hollywood might like to develop, Moore relishes being able to speak his mind. "I won't have to do what most writers do, which is either keep quiet about it or try to sound enthusiastic." He certainly doesn't mince his words regarding the casting of Depp, or the ethos of Hollywood as a whole, which he classifies as being a giant firework show. "If I write a crappy comic book, it doesn't cost the budget of an emergent Third World nation. When you've got these kinds of sums involved in creating another two hours of entertainment for Western teenagers, I feel it crosses the line from being merely distasteful to being wrong." His decision seems to have been prompted in part by repeated exposure to critics deriding films for their "comic-book plots". "To paint comic books as childish and illiterate is lazy. A lot of comic books are very literate - unlike most films."

A case in point is Lost Girls, Moore's 240-page graphic novel illustrated by his partner Melinda Gebbie, to be published in December. Having reinvented the fantasy, science fiction, crime, superhero and other genres, in Lost Girls Moore turns his attention to pornography. "All of us have got some kinds of feelings and thoughts about sex, but the only genre connected to it is this grubby, shameful one," he says. "That's a real pity. Sex is glorious, it's how we all got here, and it's most people's favourite activity - I felt it deserved something a bit more elevated than Anal Grannies.

"I saw no reason why you couldn't create a work of pornography that adhered to all the same standards as the best art or literature. The big difference between art and pornography is that art, at its best, makes you feel less alone. You see a painting or read a piece of writing that expresses a thought that you had but didn't express, and you suddenly feel less alone. Pornography, on the other hand, tends to engender feelings of self-disgust, isolation and wretchedness. I wanted to change that."

In the event, Lost Girls has been 15 years in the making. It sees The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, Peter Pan's Wendy and Lewis Carroll's Alice meeting in a hotel room in Europe in 1913 and discovering their sexuality. The fun Moore had with out-of-copyright characters eventually led to him thinking up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, perhaps his most inspired idea, and one to which he says he hopes to return. In the meantime, he is frantically working to finish up his various series for America's Best Comics(notably Promethea and Tom Strong).

And after that? He may write another novel, get back into music (he has been in two bands, The Sinister Ducks and The Emperors of Ice Cream) or even take up his "wretched drawing" again. Alan Moore may have retired from mainstream comics, but we certainly haven't heard the last of him.

Moore magic: Highlights of Alan Moore's career

V FOR VENDETTA

Begun in 1982 but not completed until 1988, this is a bleak futuristic thriller about Britain under a fascist dictatorship, featuring a vigilante in a Guy Fawkes mask stalking the streets. David Lloyd's wonderful chiaroscuro artwork is one of the high points at Charleroi, with 80 original panels on display, as well as several of Moore's typewritten scripts. Moore marks this as a turning-point in his career, and credits Lloyd for encouraging him to write the script without sound effects or thought balloons.

FROM HELL

More than a decade in the making, Moore's masterful investigation of the Jack the Ripper story pulls no punches. "I looked at several other famous murders, but Jack had everything: London, royalty, Freemasonry..." Twenty-four panels from Dance of the Gull-Catchers are on show in Charleroi.

WATCHMEN

Beautifully complemented by David Gibbons's artwork, this is arguably Moore's best work: a dense, many-layered deconstruction of the superhero myth, set in an alternate Cold War. Watchmen was partly responsible for a renaissance in comic strips. Terry Gilliam was interested in adapting it into a film, or possibly a mini-series; it now looks as though David Hayter has taken on the challenge.

BIG NUMBERS

Set in Northampton and influenced by chaos theory, this unfinished work was even more troubled than Moore's other grand schemes - the artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Al Columbia both dropped out of it. A panel from the unpublished third issue, and some of Moore's script, is on show in Charleroi.

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN

Having used out-of-copyright characters in Lost Girls, Moore moved on to a more elaborate game. "Many superheroes have their origins in the fantasy and adventure fiction of the late 19th century, and I saw the potential of that." Queen Victoria asks the head of British intelligence, Mycroft Holmes, to gather the likes of Allan Quartermain, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man to combat a new threat to Britain. Moore has completed two volumes so far, with the illustrator Kevin O'Neill, and says he would like to do more.

Alan Moore: Les Dessins du Magicien, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Place du Manège, Charleroi, Belgium (0032 71 86 22 74 / 31 44 20;www.pba.be), to 4 April

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