Comic book guy no more
‘Unearthing’, Alan Moore’s audiovisual biography of his mentor and spiritual guru Steve Moore, marks his move away from comic books – a world that now ‘disgusts’ him, he says
Unearthing is an audiovisual document with Moore reciting his own story, a photographic portrayal of the characters by acclaimed snapper Mitch Jenkins and a beautifully pitched soundtrack.
It is clearly a very personal project. After all, it was Steve Moore who taught a young Alan, then a struggling cartoonist, how to write stories for comic books. Later in life, not long before Alan turned 40, it was Steve who helped him take a leap into the unknown when he announced his decision to become a ceremonial magician and adopted a Roman snake god called Glycon as his primary deity.
The prospect of speaking with a large-bearded snake-worshipping literary anarchist offers its own sort of apprehension, but Moore’s genial Northamptonshire drone and pragmatic, self-effacing demeanour quickly dispels any tension.
He admits his own surprise at how this project has bloomed. “I originally wrote this when Iain Sinclair asked me to contribute a piece to his London: City of Disappearancesanthology of stories. The brief was simply to write something about a person or a place or a thing that had disappeared, was disappearing or would disappear within the confines of Greater London. The first thing I thought of was my great friend and mentor, because he’s lived all his life a few paces from the spot where he was born, and that kind of binds him to the area where he lives. It wasn’t just about taking a fascinating individual who would, like all of us, be gone some day, but it was also talking about how the world in which he lived was constantly changing. When I initially got the offer to write UnearthingI went to Steve and said ‘this is what I’m planning to do, to write a biography of you, if that’s okay’. He thought about it for a bit and decided it was okay. He had a word with his goddess, who is, of course, really the only important opinion in the room.
“I just turned out this 26-page story and that would have been it. And then I heard from my friend Mitch Jenkins, a world-class photo-grapher, who just happens to live around the corner, to say he was getting a bit tired of constantly retouching the irises of the latest American movie star. He asked if I had any fragments of texts that he might be able to get a few ideas for new images from. The only thing I’d got was this huge unwieldy document Unearthing. I said ‘obviously this is too big but you’re welcome to anything in there that inspires you’.
“He came back saying he wanted to turn this into this huge book of photographs and texts that were combined in unusual ways. I thought ‘well, that sounds wonderful, and also it doesn’t sound as if I have to do any work’, because I’d written the story already. The only bit of work I had to do, which was a pleasure, was to pose for a couple of pictures where I do intrude into the story. We’ve got somebody else playing Steve and the other characters, but apparently I’m very difficult to cast.”
THE EVOCATIVEprose of Unearthingincorporates a macro-history of British independent comics, tales of the Greek Moon Goddess Selene and even a charming twist where Alan actually instructs Steve to act out the final scene of the story – where he embarks on a walk and eventually disappears. In classic Alan Moore style it represents fiction as reality and reality as fiction.
“It’s a nice little postmodern, self-referential conceit. After he’d done that he said that it did feel a bit weird, and Unearthingdid start to have an effect upon his life. I mean, it was only when his brother Chris – who had lived all his life with Steve in these amiably parallel existences – read Unearthingthat he found out just how mad his brother was, and it opened up an awful lot of conversation between them. They were able to talk intimately for the first time in years – they’d just not gotten round to it. I can see how that can happen. They’ve got their familial relationship, where they were interested in different things and tended to just let each other get on with it. But after Unearthingthey were an awful lot closer, which was good because this was when Chris developed Motor Neurone Disease and Steve nursed him through it for the next two or three years. And, yes, it was painful – as you’d expect – but at the same time they were there for each other and they were communicating.”
Whatever it is, Unearthingis very different from the sprawling graphic novel masterworks Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Helland The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen– the work for which Alan Moore is best known.
He prefers to call them “comic books” rather than graphic novels – a term he feels is nothing more than a marketing conceit.
These books are, in essence, extensions of his comic-book work through the 1980s and 1990s on 2000 AD, Batman, Supermanand Swamp Thing. But what they do signify, particularly the layered anarchy-versus-fascism themes of V for Vendettaand the incredible realist superhero dystopia of Watchmen, are massive breakthroughs for the comic-book format.
OTHERS WOULD ALSOargue that the books simultaneously created a stumbling block for the comic world, setting benchmarks of excellence that have yet to be equalled.
But rather than bask in the glory and bathe in the money generated from the big-budget movie versions of his books, the steadfastly anti-Hollywood artist famously and completely disassociated himself from these projects and severed ties with the mainstream comics industry.
Although he still lives in and is very much connected to his hometown of Northampton, career-wise Alan Moore is very much about moving on. Rather than cashing in his chips, he has taken the more artistically liberating option of giving them away. This is one of many reasons why the 57-year-old is as creatively vital an artist today as he ever was.
“Away from comics is certainly an accurate depiction of where I’m headed, but what it’s towards is perhaps a bit more difficult to define, because it seems to be heading towards several different areas at once. I mean, I will always love and continue to work in the comics medium. On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago I did tell an emissary of DC Comics that I didn’t want the rights to Watchmenback, so that’s pretty final.
“It’s largely disgust – I don’t think that’s too strong a term, disgust – that I feel with the way that the comics industry operates. But what I’m moving towards feels to me to be much more exciting.”
MOORE’S CURRENTlabour of love is the Dodgem Logicmagazine, where he compiles contributions from a network of friends and collaborators, writers, illustrators and photographers.
“ Dodgem Logicis taking up an awful lot of my time at the moment, but I’m very proud of that. It’s a magazine with a good heart. The issue we have coming out in a few weeks is the best one yet, with a beautiful feature by Mitch Jenkins where he takes pictures of people who are currently living down in the very deprived Spring Boroughs neighbourhood where I hailed from. He took these beautiful Vanity Fair-style pictures of these underclass legends.
“I was talking to Josie Long the other day about Dodgem Logicand she was saying that the best thing about it for her was that it was encouraging people just to do something with the talent that you’ve got around you. Because wherever you live, there are wonderfully talented people just down the street, in our circle of friends. It’s very much just a matter of hooking them up to some viable vehicle. So if that’s true of Northampton it must be true of everywhere. At least that’s the sort of preposition I’m running on.”
- Unearthingis out now on Lex
Smileys and the Simpsons: The Making of an Icon
First published as a 12-issue comic book in 1986 and 1987 before being bound in graphic novel format, Watchmenis Alan Moore’s most acclaimed work. A collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons, the story reimagines the American superhero concept in a realist context full of contemporary anxiety and vulnerability. In 2005 it was the only graphic novel or comic book to appear in Timemagazine’s All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list.
Watchmenraised the adult comic book from its underground habitat to penetrate popular culture at large. The bloodstained smiley face badge that adorns its cover was adopted by Tim Simenon’s Bomb the Basson record sleeves and in music videos, and it became widely associated with Britain’s acid house culture of the late 1980s.
In October 2006 Moore received perhaps his greatest accolade when he appeared in The Simpsons.In the episode Moore visits the comic book store for a signing and has an outburst at Milhouse’s request to sign a DVD of the film Watchmen Babies in V for Vacation– a reference to Moore’s disdain for adaptations of his books by major film studios, specifically his refusal to support the then-current V for Vendettamovie.