Watchmen author Alan Moore: ‘I’m definitely done with comics’

As he releases his first short story collection, the revered writer talks about magic, the problem with superhero movies and why he will never write another graphic novel

I’ve been enamoured of prose fiction for quite a long while,” says Alan Moore. He is speaking to me from his home in Northampton for the launch of Illuminations, a short story collection – and, at the age of 68, his first. “But when I started my professional career, it tended to take a bit of a back seat because there were other things going on.” “Other things”, for those who don’t know Moore’s work, is his gracefully understated shorthand for a 40-year career in the funny papers that made him probably the most respected comics writer on the planet.

Yet he has always had literary roots: his best-known work, Watchmen, took its title from Juvenal, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was peopled by the canonical characters of 19th-century adventure stories. So, although Moore avowedly dislikes nostalgia, short fiction is a sort of coming home – back to the library he joined at the age of five and, once he’d outgrown Enid Blyton and Just William, where he got his teeth into science fiction and fantasy.

The young Moore tore through Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, HP Lovecraft and, especially, Mervyn Peake. The Gormenghast novels, he says, “were probably the first books where I began to understand just what you could do with writing: how he could conjure this entire complex environment and these almost fluorescent characters that stayed in your mind for ever”.

The stories in Illuminations follow where Peake and those other writers led. Formally and tonally varied, each is a little feat of world-building. Not Even Legend imagines a paranormal being infiltrating a meeting for enthusiasts of the paranormal. Location, Location, Location finds a conveyancing solicitor introducing the messiah to his new property (an end-of-terrace house in Bedford; original site, as it turns out, of the Garden of Eden), while the biblical apocalypse takes place, gaudily, overhead. American Light: An Appreciation plays a Pale Fire-style trick with the footnotes to an imaginary beat generation poem tracing a journey through the streets of San Francisco. The Improbably Complex High-Energy State imagines a sort-of-civilisation’s rise and fall in the first zeptosecond after the big bang. Cold Reading is a twist-in-the-tale ghost story with a flavour of WW Jacobs; while the title story – describing a lonely middle-aged man’s nostalgic return to the English seaside resort where he spent his childhood holidays, based on a similar trip Moore made to Yarmouth – has a Ray Bradbury vibe.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in Watchmen from 2009.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan in Watchmen from 2009. Photograph: Cinematic Collection/Alamy

The longest piece by far is What We Can Know About Thunderman, which you could read as Moore’s farewell to the comics industry; more of a “good riddance” than “ae fond kiss”. In his afterword he describes that story as having “exploded like a lanced boil”, and it’s a scabrous mickey take of an industry full of crooks, perverts, weirdos and arrested adolescents. One long and memorable scene finds its protagonists going through the flat of a revered industry figure after his death and finding his apartment literally waist-deep in pornographic magazines – and worse.

Yet it also contains a rapturous evocation, with the pulse of memory in it, of a child’s encounter with the magical carousel of comic books in a 1950s five-and-dime: “the flimsy miracles that […] filled the boy’s fixed, dilated gaze”. Moore himself grew up on the drabber DC Thomson titles such as Beano and Dandy (“The Eagle was for middle-class children, and we didn’t really have it around the house”): “It was very easy for me to be seduced by my first glimpse of American comics, which would have been on a market stall in town run by a gentleman called Sid, who very much resembled a late-period Will Eisner. That was where I got my first breathless visions of all of these … these colour comics that were about fantastic characters.”

His own career in comics – The Ballad of Halo Jones, Swamp Thing, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell are just the highlights – is too well documented, and too long past, to bear much rehashing here. Suffice to say he helped transform the medium, showing a formal command and ambition that few contemporaries matched, but struggled – just as Superman’s creators Siegel and Shuster had before him – with the rights over his own creations. His fallings out with DC Comics (among others) are the stuff of industry folklore. “I’m definitely done with comics,” he says. “I haven’t written one for getting on for five years. I will always love and adore the comics medium but the comics industry and all of the stuff attached to it just became unbearable.”

And he now looks with dismay on the way the superhero genre in which he once worked has eaten the culture. “Hundreds of thousands of adults [are] lining up to see characters and situations that had been created to entertain the 12-year-old boys – and it was always boys – of 50 years ago. I didn’t really think that superheroes were adult fare. I think that this was a misunderstanding born of what happened in the 1980s – to which I must put my hand up to a considerable share of the blame, though it was not intentional – when things like Watchmen were first appearing. There were an awful lot of headlines saying ‘Comics Have Grown Up’. I tend to think that, no, comics hadn’t grown up. There were a few titles that were more adult than people were used to. But the majority of comics titles were pretty much the same as they’d ever been. It wasn’t comics growing up. I think it was more comics meeting the emotional age of the audience coming the other way.”

Alan Moore.
‘Hundreds of thousands of adults are lining up to see characters and situations created to entertain 12-year-old boys’ … Alan Moore. Photograph: Joe Brown

He thinks that’s not just infantile but dangerous. “I said round about 2011 that I thought that it had serious and worrying implications for the future if millions of adults were queueing up to see Batman movies. Because that kind of infantilisation – that urge towards simpler times, simpler realities – that can very often be a precursor to fascism.” He points out that when Trump was elected in 2016, and “when we ourselves took a bit of a strange detour in our politics”, many of the biggest films were superhero movies.

Superman, the creation of working-class Jewish kids, was originally “very much a New Deal American” – but he got co-opted, just as “the early spiky, anarchic Mickey Mouse was very quickly modified into a suburbanite who wears short-sleeve shirts and has two nephews”. Moore is at least cautiously cheered that another of his creations, the Guy Fawkes mask drawn by David Lloyd for V for Vendetta, has been adopted as a symbol of resistance: “I can’t endorse everything that people who take that mask as an icon might do in the future, of course. But I’m heartened to see that it has been adopted by protest movements so widely across the world. Because we do need protest movements now, probably more than we’ve ever done before.”His caution towards the cultural turn we’ve taken extends to the digital realm. He shuns new tech to the extent that we speak down a landline, so I can’t see the lavishly bearded face from which his gentle Northampton burr issues. “When the internet first became a thing,” he says, “I made the decision that this doesn’t sound like anything that I need. I had a feeling that there might be another shoe to drop – and regarding this technology, as it turned out, there was an Imelda Marcos wardrobe full of shoes to drop. I felt that if society was going to morph into a massive social experiment, then it might be a good idea if there was somebody outside the petri dish.” He makes do, instead, with an internet-savvy assistant: “He can bring me pornography, cute pictures of cats and abusive messages from people.”

Hugo Weaving in 2005’s V for Vendetta.
Hugo Weaving in 2005’s V for Vendetta. Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy

Moore not only shuns the internet but, which will seem still more eccentric to some, makes no bones about being a practising magician – which he dates with peculiar precision to November 1993. Drunk in a bikers’ pub in Northampton on his 40th birthday, he announced “quite forcefully” he was going to be a magician. “The next morning when I woke up I thought: ‘Oh dear, I’m going to have to do that now, aren’t I?’ I didn’t know what it meant to become a magician. But I thought there was a certain power in having made the declaration.” His magical experiments came to chime with a worldview evident throughout his work. Human perception (as cognitive science affirms) is partial: we see the world as it’s adaptively useful to see it, not as it truly is.

Magic, for Moore, is of a piece with his art and politics, and he says the three would have been coterminous in shamanic prehistory: “All of the culture around us that I can see looks to me very much like the dismembered body of magic.” Since the origins of civilisation, he says, we’ve striven to understand the world better by breaking it down into manageable bits. “That process of fragmentation and analysis and reduction has probably gone as far as it can, in that we have fragmented societies, we have fragmented philosophies. Individually, we have fragmented psychologies […] We could do worse as a species than to try and put that dismembered corpse back together.”

One of his early-00s comics, Promethea, was an effort to communicate that worldview. I’ve disowned it now [another casualty of his falling out with DC], but it was, and is, a very good work. I think it does give a taste or a sense of the magical experience – at least some of the issues, just in the neural connectivity that some bits of Promethea suggest. I think they can put you into a slightly altered state. Which, I think, all art should do. I’m probably a pretty much unreconstructed member of the psychedelic left from 1970, where the agenda was just: let’s drop LSD in the reservoirs and thus enlighten everybody. Luckily, before I could implement that, I did grow the fuck up and realise [it] would be a terrible idea. But nevertheless the idea of enlightening people as a way of changing society probably remained my strongest directive.”

He’s now serving that directive with a renewed enthusiasm. “I’m really enjoying just writing prose fiction,” he says. “Because, in some ways, to me, that seems the purest medium. You’ve got 26 characters, and a peppering of punctuation. With that, you can describe the entire conceivable universe.”

Illuminations is published by Bloomsbury. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Sam Leith

The GuardianTramp

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