On Friday, Warner Bros are releasing a thriller about a terrorist who bombs London. True, the hero of V For Vendetta is carrying out his campaign in an alternate, fascist Britain, but he still assassinates politicians and dynamites the Houses of Parliament, so he's hardly the most obvious poster boy for the Wachowski brothers, the makers of The Matrix, to be offering us. And if that weren't enough controversy for one Hollywood blockbuster, there's been trouble behind the scenes as well. Like so many recent films, this one is based on a comic, which usually means that that comic's original writer is battling to receive more money and more recognition. But in this case the opposite is true.
Having conceived the V For Vendetta strip as an anti-Thatcherite call-to-arms in the early 1980s, Alan Moore is refusing to take any money from the film, and has striven to have his name removed from the its posters and credits. "All I'm asking [the producers] for," he reasons, "is the same kind of deal that they had no problem extending to Siegel and Schuster [the creators of Superman]. I want them to say, 'We're not going to give you any money for your work, you're not going to get any credit for it, and we're not going to put your name on it.' I don't see the problem." His struggle to be dissociated from V For Vendetta, against the Wachowskis' will, makes for a bizarre and groundbreaking situation. But in discussions of Alan Moore - widely acclaimed as the comics medium's greatest ever writer - those adjectives are never very far away.
Born in Northampton in 1952, he made his name when he worked for two British anthology comics, 2000AD and Warrior, the latter being the birthplace of V For Vendetta. The strips he wrote were noticably wittier, more affecting and more ambitious than those of his contemporaries, and it wasn't long before he was poached by the American comics giant, DC. He scripted Batman and Superman and Swamp Thing, and while those titles might not scream cultural sophistication, Moore proved, month after month, that the lowly superhero comic could be a vehicle for poetry, social comment and graphic innovation. If there were any doubts about this, they were extinguished by Watchmen, a gloriously complex 12-part superhero series that was ranked last year as one of America's favourite novels in a Time magazine poll.
The only sticking point for Moore was that, like Siegel and Schuster decades earlier, he couldn't keep the rights to the characters he created. And so, ever since Watchmen, he has preferred to write for smaller, independent comics companies, taking less money in exchange for more rights and creative freedom. And he has continued to expand the boundaries of the medium, giving free rein to his love of formal experimentation and historical research. Among many other titles, he has delivered a 600-page exploration of the Jack the Ripper crimes (From Hell), an adventure series that teams up the heroes of Victorian literature (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and a forthcoming "pornographic graphic novel" (Lost Girls), illustrated by his fiancée, Melinda Gebbie.
It's hardly surprising that Hollywood is interested in him. And, at first, Moore didn't mind its attention. "I figured that if people wanted to give me a lot of money to make a film that had only a coincidental resemblance to my work, then that was fine by me," he says when we meet in Northampton. First there was From Hell, starring Johnny Depp, then came The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, starring Sean Connery. And in both cases Moore's policy was the same: he'd take the cheque, but he'd refuse to participate in the film-making or watch the finished products. It must take an immense amount of willpower, I suggest, not to peek at a DVD of those films, just out of curiosity.
Moore disagrees. "It's not an immense amount of willpower," he says, "it's an immense amount of squeamishness. It's like, to see a line of dialogue or a character that I have poured that much emotional involvement into, to see them casually travestied and watered down and distorted... it's kind of painful. It's much better just to avoid them altogether."
That policy was satisfactory until the release of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film. Moore's comic had been published years earlier, but that didn't stop an American screenwriter bringing a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox, claiming that he'd been plagiarised.
Moore can't recall this "dreadful fiasco" without bitter irony. "The idea that I had taken The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from a Hollywood screenwriter - who I've not got the highest opinion of, I've got to be honest - that stung my vanity, if you like. Then I had to go down to London to do this videotaped testimony regarding the case, and I was cross-examined for 10 hours. I remember thinking that if I had raped and murdered a busful of retarded schoolchildren after selling them heroin, I probably wouldn't have been cross-examined for that long."
The suit came to nothing, but Moore had learnt his lesson. "At this point I thought, 'OK, it's obvious to me that if I'm involved in the film industry in any way, even tenuously, then I'm still leaving myself open to people saying more or less whatever they want about me. So from now on, what I will do is completely distance myself from the films.' If it's films of work I've done on my own, then I can flatly refuse to let them happen. However, since most of my work is done in collaboration [ie, Moore writes the scripts and various artists draw the pictures], that wouldn't really be fair to the artists who may have been looking forward to the money. So what I said was, 'OK, if the artists want a film to go ahead then fine, but I will just have my name taken off it and the artists can have my share of the money.'" He applied this tactic to Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Although Moore had created the character of John Constantine for DC Comics, he got no cash, and no mention in the celluloid version. "I later found out that actually this was because the people who made Constantine had absolutely no intention of putting my name on it in the first place," he notes. "But that didn't matter. I'd got what I wanted."
He made the same stipulation when V For Vendetta went into production: David Lloyd, who drew the V For Vendetta strips, was to receive all of Moore's payment and credit. "Then I got a phonecall from one of the Wachowski brothers - either Curly or Moe - and he was saying that he was a huge fan of my work, and that he was doing this V For Vendetta film, at which point I interjected that he shouldn't take this personally, but I didn't wish to be associated with it. And he was asking if he could meet me, and I was saying, 'I'm just very busy at the moment,' trying as politely as possible to disengage and get back to my work. Eventually he morosely rang off. Then the next thing I heard was that there had been a press release from Warner, in which the film's producer, Joel Silver, said that I was really, really excited about this film, and that I was going to be meeting with the Wachowski brothers real soon so we could all enthuse about this exciting new cinematic possibility. Given that I'd already done interviews where I'd stated clearly that I was having nothing to do with this film, that kind of made me look like a liar."
Moore is still waiting for the "simple retraction, apology and clarification" he requested, but he has won a kind of victory: he is no longer credited onscreen or on the posters of V For Vendetta. A greater victory, though, is that his protracted wranglings with Warner haven't distracted him from work on his second prose novel, Jerusalem. "It's gonna be immensely long-winded," he says, with some relish: 750 pages, all about the working-class estate where he grew up.
Northampton is still the only town Moore has ever lived in. Now divorced, with two grown-up daughters, he occupies a Victorian terrace house which is no different from its neighbours, except for the wooden snakes entwined on the front door, and the gargoyles above the windows.
"They keep the Jehovah's Witnesses away, at least," says Moore. The supernatural theme continues inside. In between the teetering stacks of books, the paintwork is dark blue with gold stars. In the cosy front room, two sphinxes sit on the mantelpiece above the gas fire, and there are wooden panels on the wall detailing the alphabet of the angels, as transcribed by Elizabeth I's personal astrologer. "It's a kind of archeological record of my layers of obsession," says Moore, inviting me to take a seat on a zodiac-patterned settee. "There's an alcove upstairs that is a vortex of cherubs - and I really don't know where I was going with that."
Who lives in a house like this? Well, Moore himself is as recognisable, as iconic even, as any of the comic-book characters he's created. As befits a man who studies witchcraft, he has a beard straggling down to his chest, and his twinkling eyes peer between curtains of greying brown hair. "It's just laziness," he shrugs. "I really can't be bothered going to a barber. And shaving every morning, that's nightmarish. I spent my teenage years covered in tiny little bits of toilet paper."
Sinking deep into an armchair, with a tray across his knees that's laden with cigarette papers, tobacco and other substances, he talks non-stop for two hours - an upbeat Ancient Mariner. He's had no official education since he was expelled from school for selling LSD, but his knowledge of history, science and literature is astounding; it would be intimidating, too, if it weren't balanced by a jovial friendliness and a nasal Midlands brogue: "me" for "my" and "oi" for "I". Like his house, Moore is a unique mix of the mindbogglingly mystical and the affably down to earth.
When he arrived on the comics scene, companies would pay to fly him to conventions in America, where his admirers would hang on his every word. But the adulation didn't suit him, and nowadays he'd rather be "couchbound". "I enjoy putting my mind into different situations rather than my body," he says. "One of the advantages of travelling the world is that you get to know the world broadly. And one of the advantages of staying in one place is that you get to know the world deeply. You don't just see the physical landscape that you're passing through. You get to see how all these little threads of genealogy actually pan out over the decades. You get a very deep sense of human community and the human experience. And if you understand one place deeply enough, you can probably understand all the elements that you need in any human community. And you can probably write about absolutely anywhere."
For now, though, he's writing about Northampton, and he's convinced that it's the centre of England - geographically, financially, emotionally and morally. "And it's not just me saying this," he adds.
"It's actually God. In the eighth century, there was a monk who visited Golgotha..." And off he goes on a whirlwind tour of Northampton through the ages, stopping off at King John, Thomas a Becket, the Romans, the Saxons, the Crusades, Wat Tyler, James Joyce and Dusty Springfield. And then, pausing only to continue building a multi-Rizla'd edifice that's almost as ingeniously constructed as one of his comics, he explains how time is the shadow of the fourth dimension, and how "for no reason at all" he's writing one chapter of Jerusalem in "disguised iambic pentameter".
Somewhere, in among all that hair, his face lights up, and the Wachowski brothers, Hollywood, and V For Vendetta all seem a long way away.> Reuse content