An interview with one of my heroes for the annual Vice Fiction Issue. This is a longer edit than the one that made the magazine.
DISTORTED DREAM GLASSES AND THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
Alan Moore’s Fictions Show Us What Could Have Been (And Still Might Be)
Alan Moore should need no introduction. But on the miniscule off chance that you don’t know who he is, it is fairly simple. Moore is the one guy that just about anyone who has ever read a comic agrees to be the best writer in the fictional form’s entire history. Period. He was the person who near enough single-handedly made it OK for grown-ups to admit that they liked funny books and legitimised the concept of comics being works of fiction that should be taken just as seriously as books that didn’t have pictures in them to go with all the words.
A proud son of Northampton who still lives near the area he grew up, Moore cut his teeth in the early 1980s at 2000AD, the leading British comic factory of science fiction and fantasy. His Judge Dredd strips re-imagined the character with hitherto unexplored complexities. His own creation, Halo Jones, was the first title in the medium not to portray a female character as a big-boobed super lady or a victim. They remain peerless within 2000AD’s output and British comics in general.
By the mid-1980s, he had revolutionised American comics first by jump-starting stagnant DC title Swamp Thing and turning it in to a book of existential examination with ecological concerns and then by creating something called Watchmen. Let’s assume you know all about that.
Several legal tussles over ownership and rights to his creations later, and Moore’s comic output narrowed to work on his own line, only half-jokingly entitled America’s Best Comics. Of the glut of genius that sprang from ABC, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman seems to have captured Moore’s imagination and it has become a mammoth, sprawling beast of a book that happily mixes fictional and imagined history with versions of our own reality.
On top of all that, Moore has managed to find time to produce a formally complex novel, Voice of Fire (1996) and a long form poem that deals with girls who like girls and guys who like guys called The Mirror of Love (2003). He also published 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom, which examined pretty much what the title suggests, and Lost Girls (2006), which he created with Melinda Gebbie and involves Wendy from Peter Pan, Alice from Alice In Wonderland and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz having lots of fairly explicit adventures. It’s a real hoot.
Moore is currently working on Dodgem Logic, an underground magazine, his second novel, Jerusalem, and a guide to magic. Because he is a practising magician. Who also worships a Roman snake deity called Glycon. We called him at his home in Northampton and, after assuring us that he had a cup of tea and “as many more cups on the way as it takes”, it soon became apparent that as well as being a genius of the written word, Mr Moore is also really in to talking. A lot.
Vice: Hello Alan, so Dodgem Logic is your new thing. Why don’t you tell us about that.
Alan Moore: Dodgem Logic is an aggressively random collision of all sorts of things from absurdist pieces of fiction by Steve Aylett to new bits of work by Savage Pencil and Kevin O’Neill. Aesthetically and in terms of form it came from a fascination with the underground press, which is a culture that dates back to before the printed press itself but came to popular fruition in the 1960s and 1970s when it was a vital part of the counterculture. In the UK, the main papers were The International Times and Oz – which started out as a satire magazine in Australia and then moved here, where it became a much more controversial and psychedelic affair. Those were intoxicating times and it was the underground press which acted as the glue keeping that whole element of society together and in touch with each other. Without that glue you would have just had a few people who wore similar clothes, liked similar music and took similar drugs. You would have had no coherent political or cultural discourse. We decided to make Dodgem Logic a very brightly coloured, 48-page magazine that is trying to reinvent the notion of underground publishing for the 21st century. We were constantly trying to leave it with some rough edges, we didn’t want it to be slick because there can be something intimidating about slick. It can put up a barrier between the magazine and its audience so we’ve gone for a deliberately rough look.
It is fairly cut and paste in places, which makes it seem like a hybrid between an underground paper and a zine.
I take that as a compliment. Fanzines used to be such a vital part of the culture that I grew up in from the poetry fanzines of the 1960s to the comic book, science fiction and fantasy fanzines in the 1970s that produced so much of the talent that now dominates the comic and science fiction genres. They were incredibly productive little publications and they contained such a lot of energy. Perhaps that came from how easy they were to produce. They were nowhere as easy as they would be to make these days, but now that all of the technology is there to make something far more ambitious than we ever dreamed possible the impetus is no longer there. Perhaps the degree of passion that was put in to something like Sniffin’ Glue or any of those zines associated with the punk movement does in fact exist now, but online. I don’t know. I may sound old-fashioned, but I still believe that there will always be a difference between something that you can look at on a screen and something that you can hold in your hand. There is more of a sense of an artefact that is part of a community and part of a culture.
A general dissatisfaction with government and the inexorable decline of civilization, as well as a concern with the erosion of local community and culture, is a recurring theme in your work, from Swamp Thing to Watchmen. Dodgem Logic seems a more direct means of addressing those issues, as opposed to the more oblique method of tackling them via comics.
To tell the truth, I am pretty much out of comics. I am pressing on with The League and I am drawing some strips for Dodgem Logic, but I am detached from the comics industry and I no longer consider myself a part of it. These issues could be addressed in comic form. However, while doing that might delight my comic book audience, it wouldn’t be addressing the wider world, which is where these issues need to be. I should initially point out that Dodgem Logic isn’t a magazine specifically about Northampton. That just happens to be where myself and some of the contributors are from. However, we look at it from the point of view that Northampton is in the exact centre of the country geographically, economically and politically. It is a fairly good model representation of an every-town. The high streets are being boarded up, the people are being abused by the council and there is garbage everywhere.
What prompted you to address these issue so directly now?
There were the social concerns of the general decline of society, but those issues constantly loom large. It was really more specific events that prompted us to start the magazine. A couple of years ago I was contacted by a group of ex-young offenders who hade been working on their music down in the Burrows area of Northampton. That is where I was born, where I grew up and where most of my forthcoming novel is set. They had decided that they wanted to do a film about this deprived and neglected area where they were living. Since they knew that I came from the area, they asked me if maybe I’d like to be interviewed for the film. They were working with the Central Museum in Northampton who got in touch with me and I went down there, met them and we got on very well. I wanted to stay in touch with them beyond the duration of that initial project, so I went down every week to the offices of a local community support organisation called CASPA that was doing brilliant work in the area. I met up with the boys and their wrangler, who was a wonderful young woman called Lucy, and I’d inevitably tell them about the local scene and the underground culture and arts clubs that were around when I was growing up and had done so much to shape me in to the person that I am today. I would also tell them about how we’d produce magazines and fanzines and hold poetry readings and things like that and I’m sure it was very boring for them hearing all these stories, but the ideas seemed to stick. They decided to produce a magazine of their own, which I contributed to. Both myself and the boys wanted to talk about some of the genuine problems that afflicted that area and how it was a shame that we probably couldn’t talk about them in the magazine because it was council-funded. We discussed the possibility of doing an independent magazine and decided to give it a go. The issues seemed so important to the people of that area that we couldn’t keep them from the local community. I wrote an article that was called The Destructors. It was about an old incinerator that was in the Burrows area. It was where, in days gone by, the entire city would bring its rubbish and crap to be disposed of. Now that gave a pretty clear message as to what the council thought of people who lived in that area, and while the incinerator was torn down in the 1930s, that message remains applicable to the area. It is where the council sends things that it doesn’t want to have deal with: immigrant groups, ex-convicts and people who have been in care homes. All the problematic people are shoved down into this neighbourhood, often in accommodation that has been condemned by the fire services and where horrific things happen every day. We were unsurprisingly told that we could not publish the article as it was critical of the council, so Lucy and I worked it out that she could drop down to three days a week at CASPA and spend the other two days working on an independent magazine with me. The council swiftly told her that if she was going to spend two days a week working on an independent magazine then she wouldn’t have her job at the council on the other three days, at which point I decided that I’d had enough and I invited Lucy to work on the magazine full-time. The issues we are talking about are important and the magazine offers a place where these things can be discussed. We’re not bound by any constraint and we can say whatever we want. However, we don’t just want to depress the hell out of people, so we have tried to get as much stuff in there as we can that is genuinely entertaining as well as the social and political. These are both strategies of getting people through difficult times – give them the information that they need, but also give them something to cheer them up. I hadn’t done much more than pass through that area for many years. Meeting the good people that lived there in this rotten situation actually made me decide that I wanted to do something focused on that area and areas that are like it all over the country. The Burrows is in the top two percent of depravation in the United Kingdom and there are areas like it all over the country but they are swept under the carpet. I also felt an emotional attachment to the area, which I’ve always had, and I saw an opportunity to produce something beautiful and useful out of that environment while at the same time creating a model for other areas like it.
You have advocated anarchy both in your work and personally in the past. Would that be your answer to the social problems discussed in Dodgem Logic?
Well, in the second issue I will actually be writing an article introducing anarchy and explaining how it could practically be applied to our current situation. So yes. One of the things that I will be looking at is the principle of the Athenian lottery and the concept of sortition. Sortition basically dictates that on any issue that needs to be settled on a national or administrative level you appoint a jury by lottery. They can come from anywhere within the culture and they are appointed purely at random. The pros and cons of the case are then presented to the jury, which they then listen to, debate, then vote on. After the decision, they are no longer part of the jury, they melt back into society and for the next issue another jury is appointed. That system seems to me like it might be approaching something like democracy, which is something that we do not have at the moment. The word democracy comes from “demos”, the people, and “cratos”, to rule – “the people rule”. It doesn’t say anything about the elected representatives of the people ruling, which is the system that we have at the moment. By moving to something closer to sortition, we would create a system safe from many of the abuses of our current model of government. It is quite difficult to buy people’s favour if you don’t know who the people you need to be buttering up are going to be. It would also be difficult for the temporary ruling body to act in their own interest, as it would make more sense for them to act in the interest of the society that they would be returning to. It would also square the circle between the ideas of anarchy and government. My definition of anarchy is the Greek one: no leaders. It is difficult to think of an ordered society that conforms to that ideal and yet with the Athenian lottery you wouldn’t have leaders, you would have individual people making balanced decisions. It would take an enormous amount of constitutional change, but I like putting the idea out there so that it is a possibility and something to be discussed. Our current form of government clearly isn’t working and we can’t just keep trying to make quick fixes on a model that is inherently flawed. It might be the time for a new model rather than putting continual patches on the radiator of the old Model T Ford that has come to the end of its natural lifetime.
Dodgem Logic deals with the your local environment very directly. Your forthcoming novel is also set in the area, as was your first. Will you be tackling these themes through your long form fiction?
To a certain degree; both methods complement each other. Dodgem Logic and Jerusalem essentially deal with the same neighbourhood and territory, albeit in wildly different ways. Reading an issue of Dodgem Logic will be a very different experience to reading a chapter or two of Jerusalem. Dodgem Logic is me trying to do something intelligent yet accessible. Jerusalem – I don’t care if anyone likes it or not. I am just trying to do the best possible piece of writing that I can. Jerusalem is between myself and the world. If nobody reads it that is a problem for me, whereas Dodgem Logic is important in a different way. It is important in terms of the issue that it raises about the area and those are issues I want people to hear about. They are both attempts to reinvigorate and reinvent that neighbourhood in different contexts. Dodgem Logic is attempting to literally and practically re-invigorate the area and give something back to its people. Jerusalem is more akin to what Iain Sinclair achieved with his wonderful book Hackney, That Rose- Red Empire. He captured the rich snow globe of Hackney that was vanishing under his feet. He managed to get all of the broad characters and lost eras captured in that book before they are flattened and steam-rolled over to make way for the Olympic Village. With fiction, you have a means – and perhaps the only true means – to either resurrect or preserve the places that are going to disappear if not today then tomorrow.
The concept of preserving the past through fiction is one that you embrace in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman to a pretty huge degree. Every cell is crammed with tonnes of cultural references.
With The League…, which I can tell you that I have just finished writing book three of today, we are attempting to create, through fiction, a cultural Noah’s Ark, within which all of the great writers and the great fictions that Kevin and myself feel are worthy of preserving can be kept alive through The League… for a little bit longer before they sink in the depths of ignorance.
The League… also exists in a strange space between fiction and reality and carves a very convincing fictional reality. Was that intentional from the outset?
Absolutely. We have a very well-defined reality and it is something that gets stronger as the story goes on. It has probably got to be, by definition, the single biggest continuity in literature of all time because it has all of the characters individual continuities subsumed within it. That world is interesting in the way that we are trying to fit in all of the fictional inspirations from certain eras into our final continuity so you have a world where the Nazis did invade and Fu Manchu was real, but at the same time it mirrors our own world and our own world’s development. It may be a distorted glass but it helps order our perception of our own world. It is like a dream glass. Our reality wasn’t like that of The League’s, but it might have been what we were dreaming of in our fictions and in ourselves. It allows us to see what might have been and what we might have aspired to. It is the other half of the story. There is actual history, as in what actually happened, but that in itself is a kind of fiction. Then there is the kind of history presented in our art, books and literature. Which, in a peculiar and psychological sense, is truer and more dependable than supposedly factual, conventional history, which might not in fact be true in any sense at all. Throughout The League… we have established a sense that fiction is in fact the bedrock that mankind is standing upon and that our real world is ultimately based upon fiction.
How do you continue to shove so many literary and cultural references into The League…?
They are my interests, Kevin’s interests and a result of the research that we did when we hit upon the concept. Then we started to think seriously about what would happen if this was a story in which everything in the fictional world could be included. This meant that it would need its own geography, which we dealt with in the appendix to the second volume. It would also need its own history, which was dealt with in The Black Dossier. For example, we didn’t have an Adolf Hitler in our fictional reality, we had an Adenoid Hynkel from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It’s nice to be able to tie up a few of these things and have them based upon self-contained real events. In our reality, the M figure, who is the leader of MI5, turns out to be Harry Lime from The Third Man, which was written by Graham Greene, who based that character upon his life-long friend and a real spy who defected to the Soviets Union called Kim Philby. The Harry Lime character we decided to in fact just make a pseudonym for Robert Sherry, who was one of the characters who attended Greyfriars school in the Billy Bunter books. We then decided to make George Orwell’s big brother into Harry Wharton, who was the leader of the gang at Greyfriars. We also turned Greyfriars into a British public school that was recruiting for the spy service, which in turn fades nicely into real history. What clinched it was discovering that there had been a brief spat between Frank Richards, who had written the Billy Bunter stories, and George Orwell, who had written an essay about how the Bunter books represented everything that was bad about the British Empire. Frank Richards disastrously attempted to write a riposte to Orwell, where he replied to the accusations that he portrayed foreigners as being in some way comical simply by saying: “They are.” That link between reality, fiction and the fiction being discussed in reality makes the uses all the more piquant. There are many links like that within The League… that Jess Nevins, The League’s annotator, will unravel. The subtexts are just interesting little avenues the reader might want to investigate and help enrich the world that The League… takes place in.
The League… and V For Vendetta both portray fascist dystopias. In light of the rise of the BNP and the English Defence League, as well as Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, do you fear that the fictional futures you have created may come to pass in your lifetime?
No. I could of course be completely wrong and I do think that fascism is still set to cause us a lot of trouble, but I genuinely think that it comes from a place of such ignorance that it cannot adequately cope with the realities of the 21st century. It is too simple a concept and lacks the complexity necessary to deal with the fairly chaotic daily realities of our current situation. It is only really effective on a thuggish street level, which can cause trouble for marginalised minority groups. That is a terrible reality for a lot of people but as a political force they cannot be taken seriously. I agree with Reginald D. Hunter who says, “You have to let the fascists talk.” Allowing them to speak in public will do them no good at all, as their voice is so shrill, unpleasant and off-putting that I don’t think it will in any way aid their electoral prospects. If you attempt to silence them you allow them to claim oppression by the liberal elite. Have you seen what Nick Griffin looks like? Now, I know that our politicians are no oil paintings, but even in that environment the BNP are particularly repulsive. Most parties put at least some thought into their presentation and allow some consideration of who will be their focal point. The BNP clearly do not have that luxury; they have to take whatever they can get. As to Griffin being on Question Time, I have never watched it so it will hardly bother me. Aside from that time that Brian Eno was on. That was rather good
What can we expect from Jerusalem? Will it pick up the themes dealt with in Voice of Fire?
Jerusalem will certainly have elements in common with Voice of Fire and there will still be elements of formal experimentation, but it will not be quite the same structurally. Jerusalem will be divided into three books. It will hopefully come in one volume with three parts. The first part will be reminiscent of Voices of Fire in that it will jump about from character to character in different times in the third-person past tense. There will not be an individual from each age in order, it will be jumping about from differing perspectives and from time to time. The second book involves a continuous linear narrative from chapter to chapter, but does peculiar things with language and perspective and it’s certainly where some of the more fantastic elements of the novel take place. It is rather akin to a mad children’s story due to the majority of the protagonists either being children or the ghosts of dead children. The third part, which I’m currently trying to finish and is about nine chapters from completion, is the most experimental and demented piece of writing I have ever done. Thus far it is all in the present tense and each chapter is written in a wildly different style. The chapter that I have just finished is entitled “Round the Bend” and it deals with the St. Andrews hospital, which is a marvellous place where my wife and I had our wedding. Its patients include Spike Milligan, Dusty Springfield, Patrick Stewart, Sir Malcolm Arnold the composer, JK. Stephen, the ripper suspect, and Lucia Joyce, who spent 35 years there as a mental patient. The chapter I have just finished involves Lucia Joyce wandering around the grounds of the hospital while she is also wandering in her mind where she is meeting other patients from other times who she could not possibly physically meet. It is a hallucinatory tour around the hospital grounds and around Lucia’s mind and it is all written in what I am sure is a lousy attempt at her father’s language, which takes you through this hallucinatory angelic state that Lucia is in. William Blake is another figure that is of course hanging over Jerusalem, even though he doesn’t directly appear in it, as well as John Bunyan, who does. They both helped inspire the visionary aspects of the novel. Part two involves a working-class paradise with working-class angels who play billiards with human souls, which is an idea I am keen on, but the chapter with Lucia Joyce took me forever to write, which is why I needed a break after chapter 26.
Is your book of Magic still in the works?
It certainly is. Once I’ve finished the final book of The League… and Jerusalem it will be time to tackle that.
What is it about magic that you find so interesting?
Magic to me is a new perspective with which to look at the world, your life and reality, as well as a new approach to your relationship with your own consciousness. It is a much more interactive approach to consciousness that offers far greater possibilities. I was initially very sceptical about magic due to the enormous number of idiots associated with it. However when I came across people like Dr. John Dee I realised that I was dismissing people who were clearly, or at least apparently, far more intelligent than myself. I didn’t come up with the theories of navigation or mathematics or astronomy or the concept of the British Empire and apply it to the whole world. You can’t really dismiss people who have achieved things like that so I started to study magic and I discovered that it was the most effective way of examining your consciousness. Science is a very powerful tool for examining reality, but there is a whole section of the mind that it cannot examine or explain. I think it is a fairly safe assumption to make that my consciousness is real and that I am currently talking to you on this telephone as opposed to a talking hologram that my consciousness is projecting. However, science cannot explain or rationalise the concept of consciousness because it cannot replicate it in a laboratory. That leaves the single biggest area of our experience of the world unexplained. We experience reality through our consciousness, so if we don’t accept that it exists what do we have? Science does a wonderful job of explaining many facets of reality but it is not its place to make pronouncements regarding consciousness because it cannot do the job of explaining it. Attempting to say that it doesn’t exist is an admission of failure. With magic, all sorts of possibilities are offered as to what consciousness might be, what areas of consciousness might have strange qualities and what may be practical applications for those qualities. Magic is entirely to do with the world of the mind and I happen to believe that things within your mind are real. They are just not real in the same way that things in the physical, material world are real. It is not a difficult distinction to make – we are talking about two different categories of reality here. We exist in the material world in the same way that a rock in the garden exists in the material world, but we also exist in this other world that seems to be purely cerebral. Magic is simply a way of exploring that world. It involves following concepts that certain individuals have been exploring since humanities inception. Some of them were charlatans, some of them were deluded maniacs or attention-seekers, but some of them are the pillars upon which our entire reality is based. Paracelsus basically put forward the concepts of modern medicine, as well as being the first person to explore the concept of the unconscious centuries before Freud or Jung. He was also a magician. He wouldn’t have used that term himself and probably would have thought of himself as a natural philosopher. Many of the cornerstones of our culture have roots in the occult. The earliest writers and artists came from the shamanic culture and science comes from alchemy. Isaac Newton was an alchemist. When he said, “We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” the shoulders he was talking about were those of John Dee. Einstein apparently died with a copy of Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine on the corner of his desk and there are certainly similarities between The Secret Doctrine and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, magic tends to be viewed as the deranged relative of the family that we don’t want to bring up this far in to the advancement of our culture. The idea for the book came about when I decided, along with my magical partner Steve Moore, it was time to lay our cards on the table and explain what magic was, how to do it and why you probably shouldn’t do it in a book that wasn’t hiding behind pseudo-creepy imagery or incomprehensible occult jargon. So watch out for it.