Before Alan Moore, comics were hardly well-known for their writing or their writers. Few probably realised that such a profession existed. But for much longer than the usual 15 seconds in the late 1980s, Moore endured hysterical celebrity as the first great modern author of comics in the English language, before the pressures drove him to withdraw from the spotlight and rarely be seen at public events again. A writer who shapes and remoulds myths himself, his reclaimed privacy helped to build up a distinct mythology around him: that he is a recluse, perhaps a madman, avoiding his readers, shunning the media, never leaving his house, let alone his home town. These distortions swiftly vanish when you spend a day in his native Northampton with him and his partner, American comic artist Melinda Gebbie and his collaborator on his latest magnum opus, Lost Girls.
Being out and about with him, you soon learn that he's something of a well-known local, respected, befriended, though not idolised. "One of the reasons why I don't leave Northampton is that the people here don't treat me like a celebrity, because they're used (omega) to me," he says. "I've been here for years, I'm just that bloke with long hair." He does like to cultivate a somewhat sinister appearance, his voice rumbling and earthy, his gaze intense. For someone supposedly not wanting to be recognised, or worse mobbed, Moore cuts an unmistakeable, Rasputin-like figure, with pre-Raphaelite beard, large rings on every finger, sharply dressed with a preference for black, and made taller by his full, flowing, curly mane. Despite appearances, he is hugely amusing, gentlemanly and quietly approachable.
It is not just the people of Northampton who he shares a special relationship with. Moore knows his birthplace intimately. Joining him on a taxi ride into the centre, on a stroll to a restaurant or round the precinct, you realise that he communes with the multiple, interwoven histories behind the city's every street and building. "As far as I know, Northampton is practically equidistant from every coast, which means that it is right at the centre of the country, and so all of England's inner conflicts have more or less passed through it, they have no choice. So it has a very strange history." Tapping into this, Moore's hometown was the setting of his challenging first novel, Voice of the Fire - sweeping through 5,000 years of fact and fiction from the dawn of language to his family and friends there today - and of his next, even more ambitious novel, Jerusalem. What better place than at the nation's crossroads, geographically, economically, politically, culturally, for Moore to gaze out across oceans, space and time from the comfort of his terraced house.
From the outside, his home appears anonymous and ordinary enough, until you look a bit more closely. For a start, it's called "Sea View", and then you'll notice some of the unusual plaster figures adorning the frontage. Once inside, its decor is a mix of the suburban and the esoteric. "One half I've kept exactly as it was when I moved in in 1988," he says. "The other half has been progressively changed into a sort of strange Moorish palace, with coloured glass and magical artefacts." He fixes a cup of tea in a conventional enough kitchen before settling down by the fire in the low-lit living-room, its walls hung with art and objects. Many relate to his researches and beliefs in magic, including an almost-forgotten pre-Christian snake deity, Glycon, whose worship he has single-handedly revived. This occurred soon after his 40th birthday. While most people might use the occasion to have a mid-life crisis, Moore decided, "to formally declare myself a magician. It is my belief that all gods are stories, or at least the ideas behind stories, but stories or ideas that have become in some way almost alive and aware."
If anyone knows the living and transformative power of stories, it must be Moore. He has earned a reputation for taking overfamiliar icons and seemingly spent genres and investing them with unexpected new depth and potential. In tandem with his collaborators' artistic skills, his writings have achieved this with horror in Swamp Thing and Constantine, superheroes in Watchmen, Guy Fawkes in V for Vendetta, Victorian gothic classics in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Jack the Ripper in From Hell. The impact of these stories only really comes across in their graphic novel form and so far has largely been lost in translation when brought to the big screen. In his view, "the written or spoken word is a higher technology than film. I believe it is much more genuinely magical in its effects and much more human. I'm not ignorant or dismissive of cinema. But with the written word, any writer has got exactly 26 characters. Out of the rearrangements of those 26 characters, the writer can create anything."
Hollywood first came to call a year or two after the dense, 400-page Watchmen was released in 1987, which Terry Gilliam was first assigned to adapt. Others have been trying ever since, most recently David Hayter, but Gilliam is adamant that it is "the War and Peace of comics" and unfilmable. "Certain works should be left alone, in their original form. Let your (omega) imagination animate the characters. Do your own sound effects. Your own camera moves. Dave Gibbons' artwork is perfect. From my first reading of Watchmen, it felt like a movie. Why does it have to be a movie?"
Other stories by Moore and company have become movies, for better or worse. Johnny Depp was the unlikely casting in 2001 for a film of From Hell. Which, somehow, managed to give Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's chilling, thoughtful, thoroughly researched graphic novel (the first to come with appendices) a happy ending. Aside from last year's V for Vendetta, the best of the bunch, other movie versions of his works have proved no better. Luckily, it seems even a mediocre movie can prompt more people to discover how superior the original source material is. Moore never goes to the premieres; he has also turned down lucrative offers to write screenplays such as Robocop 2.
Moore's disenchantment with the blockbuster business, however, has not stopped him supporting more independent projects. His first serious cinematic flirtation involved Malcolm McLaren, for whom he adapted the legend of Beauty and the Beast into a screenplay entitled Fashion Beast. For now, this languishes unmade for lack of finance. In 2004, he took on the leading role himself as contemporary shaman in an 80-minute documentary movie with first-time Surinamese director DeZ Vylenz. The Mindscape of Alan Moore is a powerful, almost hypnotising one-to-one address by Moore, as if he is there addressing you, staring into your soul. It merges autobiographical memoir, performance art, psychedelic ritual and wide-ranging commentary to pursue urgent political and spiritual questions through comics, society and magic. The film's high production quality and arresting insights belie its minuscule budget and guerilla filmmaking tactics. Shown to acclaim at numerous festivals (it can be seen at the ICA's Comica this month), the film is released on DVD with over three hours of extras on 18 November, Moore's 53rd birthday, through the ShadowSnake website. It's possibly the first film of his work that he is totally pleased with.
He reserves the magic of his words for exceptional one-off, multi-media performances, which have been issued on CD and turned into comics, and above all for his prose and graphic novels. Writing for comics, he tailors each script with specific artists in mind, lacing them with surreal asides and all manner of detail. So much so, that the thought he invests into every word can make his work-rate agonisingly slow. According to Dave Gibbons, this meant that to draw Watchmen, before emails, before faxes, he was sent pages of the script "in ones and twos on the passenger seat of a taxi, all the way from Northampton to St Albans".
Some of his scripts can grow unusually elaborate. For example, the single opening panel in the first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, an external shot set in "Dover, May, 1898", takes him over 500 words to convey. His suggestions to artist Kevin O'Neill include "chalk-streaks of gullshit on the railing in the foreground". Equally, however, Moore is no control freak or puppeteer. "It annoys me to hear people talk about 'Alan Moore's V for Vendetta'. What you see on the page is the meeting between an artist and myself. That's where the creation takes place." Moore always prefers close collaborations, because out of these emerge the "multi-track" levels of verbal and visual reading that only comics can achieve.
Of all Moore's collaborations, the work on his latest graphic novel, Lost Girls, has been especially long, some 16 years, and intensive, as he and Melinda Gebbie became partners and lovers. Gebbie, a fiercely original underground cartoonist in her own right, was a victim of British judicial squeamishness in 1985, when her uninhibited 1977 comic book Fresca Zizis was declared obscene and destroyed. In Lost Girls, Moore and Gebbie set out to transform pornography, "ordinarily a dull and ugly genre with absolutely no standards", into something potentially artistic as well as arousing. They revisit the beloved children's storybook heroines Alice (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), Wendy Darling (from Peter Pan) and Dorothy Gale (from The Wizard of Oz) as if they were real, grown up and sexually experienced. "I think every reader can identify with these characters, because they represent our own childhood and the changes that happened to them are similar to those that have happened to us."
These three different ages and types of woman, each with her own secrets encoded in her fairytale youth, meet and share their erotic fantasies at the luxury Hotel Himmelgarten on the Austrian border in 1913. Setting it amid the imminent First World War allows Moore and Gebbie to comment on the human imagination in its sexual phase and the absolute lack of imagination represented by war. Moore mentions one arresting contrast: "The last chapter shows a big dildo on a dressing table in an opening shot, and by the end, when we show the battlefields, there's a human penis outside the context of an attached body which mirrors it but in an appalling way. You start to think, which of these is obscene?"
Issued in three slipcased hardbacks, Lost Girls shows a "pornotopia" of assorted and strong sexual activity, and yet Gebbie's luscious art, harking back to past masters and mistresses of erotica, has a quality that, in Moore's view, "seems able to imbue even the most potentially grotesque scene with a kind of charm, beauty, warmth and a sensual, human atmosphere. We tried to find something personally arousing in every scene, otherwise that would have been faking it, but we didn't want it just to be a mirror of our sexual tastes. We wanted to create something potentially appealing to people of every gender and sexuality."
In spite of worries that Lost Girls' explicit imagery might prove controversial or even actionable in America, the book received glowing press, even in the normally conservative USA Today, and sold out there of its 10,000-copy first printing in one day. Already going into a third printing of 20,000, their distribution to Britain has been delayed because of correspondence to the publishers, Top Shelf, from Great Ormond Street Hospital - which was given the copyright to Peter Pan in JM Barrie's will - possibly until January 2008, when its rights expire. This has not stopped the book hitting the Top 20 on Amazon.
Who would have thought that pornography could be redeemed by comics? Angela Carter in The Sadean Woman suggested that she could imagine a form of pornography that would be healthy and benevolent in a cultural sense. Moore's hope is to "create a work of sufficient worth and sensitivity, that it might begin to redefine pornography as a beautiful, safe arena in which our sexual ideas could be openly discussed." Vitally, in our present climate of war and terror, Lost Girls elevates "our capacity for fiction and sexual fantasy, the subjective world inside us all."
Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie talk about 'Lost Girls' with Stewart Lee as part of the ICA's Comica festival ( www.ica.org.uk) on 12 October. 'Lost Girls' is published by Top Shelf ( www.topshelfcomix.com). 'The Mindscape of Alan Moore' is screened at the ICA in October and released on DVD in November ( www.shadowsnake.com)Reuse content