The extraordinary gentleman
Alan Moore was the poster boy of comics. Then the 'V for Vendetta' and 'Watchmen' creator walked away in disgust. Now, still shunning the mainstream, he is back with a new instalment of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'
Alan Moore, the world-building comic creator, magician and anarchist, always had problems with authority. "I was kicked out of the Northampton grammar school aged 16," he says, in his deep voice. "My headmaster disliked me so much he took it upon himself to write to prospective employers warning them not to hire me."
Nowadays, everyone wants to hire the creator of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but he doesn't want to be hired. He has had his name removed from film versions of his comics and has refused payment for them. He also now refuses to write for the comic giants Marvel and DC Comics, though the latter has recently fudged the issue by producing weak prequels to Watchmen without Moore's involvement.
"I really don't want anything to do with comics any more," he says. "Comics had me as a spokesman for a long time. During the 1980s most of the great [ coverage] comics were getting was a review of my work or an interview with me. I was the poster boy. These days I don't want to talk about comics or to be associated with them. Frankly, the way the field has turned out I find a bit embarrassing. This wasn't what I wanted."
Moore seldom leaves Northampton but is no recluse. He has had a cameo appearance in The Simpsons, for example (the production company had to come to Northampton, 100km north of London, to record the dialogue), and has appeared on news programmes discussing the Occupy movement (which has used imagery from V from Vendetta). He chats easily and in great detail about his career and the people who have inspired him.
His love of comics started early. In the 1950s he encountered the slipper-defying delinquents of the Beano, the Dandy and the Beezer. "Those comics were just something you had if you were working class. A bit like rickets," he says.
But it was American superhero titles that really inspired him. "Superman and Batman, I thought they were wonderful. Batman certainly wasn't a dark avenger. He was a big guy who looked like your uncle. He was always smiling and had a dog that wore a mask, presumably so the other dogs didn't recognise him. I fell in love with the medium."
He drew his first comics at the age of 11 with a multicoloured Biro, on a Woolworths jotting pad. He lent them for a penny a time.
"We gave the money to something like Unicef, a whole 13 shillings and four pence. So I really can't understand why the Third World is in the state it's in. There was a dopey superhero team called the Crime Busters, a name we resurrected for Watchmen, and a superhero called Raygun who had a ray gun and whose alter ego was Raymond Gunn."
Five years later he was expelled from school. "There were issues for some time, but the acid dealing probably didn't help."
He joined Northampton Arts Lab, where he got involved in alternative publications and musical performances. He went on to draw newspaper strips about anthropomorphic pandas and drunken detectives before writing brilliant science-fiction stories about delinquent aliens (in a strip called DR & Quinch) and future poverty (Halo Jones) for Britain's greatest sci-fi weekly, 2000AD.
Soon he was writing the ground-breaking strips V for Vendetta, set in a fascist, Thatcherite Britain (later published by DC Comics), and Marvelman, a deconstructionist superhero series. DC Comics took note and hired him to work on its failing horror title Swamp Thing. "One of the first things I asked was, 'Which swamp is he the thing of?' And nobody knew. I realised nothing had been established."
He turned Swamp Thing from a generic monster into a metaphysical plant god.
He and the illustrator Dave Gibbons were eventually asked to create a comic based on superheroes for which DC Comics had bought the rights from another publisher. "When DC saw our proposal they didn't want to use those characters because they'd all end up dead or mad. So I invented some," says Moore.
This story of dysfunctional crime fighters in the shadow of Armageddon became Watchmen, which, along with Frank Miller's revisionist Batman book, The Dark Knight Returns, heralded a new wave of grim and gritty "adult comics". The term "graphic novel" began to be used.
" 'Bam, sock, pow! Comics have grown up!' " says Moore, mimicking headlines of the era.
"That wasn't true. Comics hadn't grown up. What they'd done was they'd met the rest of the western population coming the other way. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns coincided with a great dumbing down, a retreat to infancy. My generation never wanted to take on the responsibilities of being an adult in this world. And I can sympathise with that. It's a pretty grim world to take adult responsibility for."
His imitators were rarely as innovative as he was, just violent and nihilistic.
"The interesting thing about Watchmen wasn't that it was an 'adult look at superheroes'. What was important was how the story was told. The storytelling devices that we originated: connections between one scene and the next hinging upon a word or image; the story within a story; the way it jumped in time. I was trying to show what comics could do. Instead DC thought, We have no idea why it's selling: it must be because it has a franker attitude to sex and is a bit more violent. So they made all their heroes really miserable, apocalyptic and psychopathic."
Battles over interference
After battles about interference from management and ownership of the characters he had created, Moore walked away. "I decided I wouldn't work for DC Comics."
He worked independently and wrote his novel Voice of the Fire, his Victorian serial killer epic From Hell and the erotic metafictional comic Lost Girls. In the mid 1990s he returned to superheroes, most notably with Awesome Comics and then with America's Best Comics (ABC), his imprint with a company called Wildstorm.
His new heroes were not the gritty psychopaths of the Watchmen years. ABC comics included Tom Strong, an adventuring strongman; Top Ten, a moving yarn about superhero cops; and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a Victorian superteam featuring the Invisible Man, Mr Hyde and Mina Harker.
"I wanted to do superheroes as I remembered them, with a golden glow around them. But after I signed the contracts, DC bought Wildstorm," he says.
"That's pretty extraordinary behaviour. It's like being stalked by a really rich ex-girlfriend who can just buy your street, buying a whole company to get the services of someone they knew never wanted to have anything to do with them. I stuck with it for about six years before they alienated me so badly I left."
DC Comics also allowed Watchmen and V for Vendetta to be made into films.
"Those comics aren't designed to be films," says Moore. "They were designed to show off what comics were capable of. But I didn't want to rule my collaborators out, so I said, 'Give all my money to them, take my name off the films and it will be fine.' But then the producer on V for Vendetta did a press conference saying, 'Yeah, the Wachowski brothers are meeting Alan Moore, and he's really excited about this film.' Which wasn't true."
When pressure was put on him to promote the Watchmen movie, Moore "decided these people had probably been raised by hyenas, and I didn't want anything to do with anyone in this industry any more".
Retreat from the mainstream
He retreated from the mainstream again, content to produce underground magazines such as Dodgem Logic; write for independent publishers such as Knockabout and Top Shelf; and make short films with local film-makers. Despite his huge gravitational influence on the mainstream, Moore is essentially a countercultural figure. The mask worn by his V character became a symbol for the Occupy movement, which he respects.
He describes his politics as anarchist. "To me that means 'no leaders', and there are certain conditions which derive from that. If you've got no leaders, that means everyone has to be their own leader. They have to take complete responsibility for themselves and their actions. To do this after a few thousand years of having your actions subsumed within the state would be very difficult. You'd have to educate people so they were brave enough to actually take responsibility for their lives."
Moore also worships a snake god called Glycon and practises magic.
"When I was 40 I didn't fancy having a dreary midlife crisis like everyone else. I thought it would be better to go spectacularly mad in some creative way. As a writer I felt I'd pretty much reached the end of the road and that a rational approach to my writing had taken me about as far as I could go. I decided I would take a step beyond the boundaries of rationality and become a magician."
He talks about the Elizabethan polymath John Dee, an astronomer and astrologer who "spent most of his life staring in a black mirror talking to peculiar entities he described as angels".
"I couldn't dismiss Dee. He was an intellectual giant. You don't have to credit that gods are real, but I contend that the god experience is real."
Moore's recent output includes Fashion Beast, a comic adapted by Antony Johnson from an old film script Moore devised with late punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren, of whom he speaks fondly; and aexcellent new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book, Nemo: Heart of Ice, with the artist Kevin O'Neill.
He is writing another book in that series and is finishing his second novel, Jerusalem.
"I've just decided the 33rd chapter is going to be in verse. It's all about a specific place in Northampton," he says.
'Northampton born inbred'
He's rooted there - his rakish greatgrandfather, Ginger Vernon, traded caricatures for booze in local pubs, for example.
"Northampton born inbred, as I'm fond of saying. My family has been here for two or three generations, probably longer. I don't travel much. I haven't even got a passport. I'm not really interested in going overseas. I'm a misery on other people's holidays, always wishing I was at home working. I have everything I need here."
He's fascinated by Guy Debord's notion of psychogeography - the emotional and behavioural effects of the geographical environment - and loves location-obsessed writers such as John Bunyan, William Blake, JG Ballard and HP Lovecraft ("although he was probably more psycho than geographer").
"I'm starting to think that there are few things more important than location. These streets are where we live our lives. If we see them as being empty, grey blocks devoid of significance and meaning, then we the inhabitants are also devoid of significance and meaning. We internalise that.
"If you feel you live in ghastly rat runs, you come to the conclusion that you're a rat. Whereas if you have some kind of poetic understanding or historic understanding of the place where you're standing it becomes so much richer. It becomes a landscape out of the Arabian Nights, full of fable, full of information that charges and informs the streets you walk down each day.
"If you think you are living in a fabulous landscape you might come to the conclusion that you are a fabulous being. It's a way of setting your landscape on fire and making it blaze with meaning."
Nemo: Heart of Ice is published by Knockabout Comics