|Stewart Lee and Alan Moore|
Stewart Lee: Hello you're listening to Chain Reaciton, the Radio 4 show where an endless purgatorial circle of minor celebrities are asked to interview each other until eventually there is simply no one interesting left to speak to. (audience laughs) I'm Stewart Lee. I'm a comedian and writer, I'm also 36 years old and a big fan of comic books and I will fight with anyone who has a problem with that. This week I'm lucky enough to interview one of my favorite comic book creators. Even if you've never head of today's guest, it's almost certain you've enjoyed some aspect of popular culture that's been influenced by him. He was born in Northhampton in 1953 where he continues to reside, presumably as an act of willful defiance. He wrote scripts for various significant super hero comic books in the '80s including "Watchmen," "Swamp Thing" and "Batman." His stories have been made in to two financially successful Hollywood films, "From Hell" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." In recent years he's written and performed a spoken word piece about William Blake, published a novel called "The Voice of the Fire" set in Northhampton between the years 4000 B.C. and 1995, a time span which makes Jeffrey Archer's "Kane & Abel" look like an act of literary cowardice. (audience laughs) And he's also devoted much of his spare time recently to the worship of a Roman snake God called Glycon who was exposed as a glove puppet sometime in the second century. Please welcome Alan Moore.
Thanks for coming.
Alan Moore: My pleasure.
SL: So, for a bit of context, what are the first comics you ever remember buying?
Alan Moore: The first comics would have been British publications like "The Beano," "The Beezer," "The Dandy." The working classes. British comics are something you just have, like rickets, so it was kind of automatic. It was pretty much the same kind of lives that me and my friends were actually enduring. So, to read about them really wasn't that exotic.
SL: So what was the stuff you saw that was different to that?
AM: In the market stores in Northhampton I can remember that there was one place that used to specialize in these very bright, four-color, DC and Marvel super hero comics. This would have been back in 1960 when this kind of big super hero boom was just kicking off.
SL: You talked about it being in a market store, not a designated comic book store or whatever. When we were young, if you were interested in American comic books, you had to kind of seek them out. There wasn't really a distribution network. They were mainly brought over because they were used as ballast. There can be no higher compliment for a writer than to feel that his work was ultimately used as ballast for a ship. (audience laughs)
There were two major comic companies back then which is DC which is Batman, Wonder Woman and…
AM: The DC comics were always a lot more true blue. Very enjoyable, but they were big, brave uncles and aunties who probably insisted on a high standard of you know mental and physical hygiene. (audience laughs) Whereas the Stan Lee stuff, the Marvel comics, he went from one dimensional characters whose only characteristic was they dressed up in costumes and did good. Whereas Stan Lee had this huge break through of two-dimensional characters. (audience laughs) So, they dress up in costumes and do good, but they've got a bad heart. (audience laughs) Or a bad leg. (audience laughs) I actually did think for a long while that having a bad leg was an actual character trait. (audience laughs)
SL: It's almost enough!
AM: It worked for Byron. I mean, like the super heroes, it only really works when you're a kid, to be honest. When I was I think seven, I decided what I wanted to do with my life which was to actually put on a costume and fight crime. (audience laughs) It's obvious, what else were you going to do? I got my mum to make me a costume, well it wasn't really a costume it was a kind of a vest and I wore Wellingtons because that was the nearest I could get to the sort of super hero boots and I've got a mask on. I remember hiding in a tree…
SL: Was that your special power? (audience laughs)
AM: Yeah, I could hide in trees at will! (audience laughs) I remember sort of jumping down and surprising, err, frightening my school friends and they knew who I was instantly. They said, "Why are you doing this Alan Moore? Why are you dressed like this? " That was a revelation. (audience laughs) Because, all Clark Kent had to do was mess up his hair and take the glasses off and nobody ever noticed that he and Superman were the only people in Metropolis with blue hair! (audience laughs)
SL: A lot of your subsequent work has been characterized by a desire to kind of expose the limitations of the super hero genre and it sounds like you were doing that from a very early age. (audience laughs)
AM: I realized the limitations of the super hero genre from an early age.
SL: The first Marvel comic you bought was "Fantastic Four" #3. Is that right?
SL: I looked at a reprint of that today and that issue was "The Menace of the Miracle Man," which given your subsequent involvement in magic and the occult, there's some great lines in it. "Look, the Miracle Man," they say. "He's actually floating in the air. He can do anything." And he says, "Bah, next to my power the Fantastic Four are nothing. I snear at their puny powers. I mock their childish feats." He's basically a magician who goes bad.
AM: That's obviously had a huge influence on me! (audience laughs) I've taken him as a role model in many regards.
SL: He declares war on the human race and intends to conquer the earth.
AM: Yeah, that's fair enough! (audience laughs)
SL: Right! So, how did you get from being a comics fan to actually drawing and writing stuff?
AM: I suppose that come around the age of 25, I was married and we had our first child on the way. I always had a vague idea that it would be nice at some point in the future to actually make my living out of doing something that I enjoyed rather than something I despised which was like everything other than comics. So, I figured that my wife was pregnant, if I didn't give up the job and make a stab at some kind of artistic career before the baby was born that, I know the limits of my courage, I wouldn't have been up for doing it after I've got these big, imploring eyes staring up at me. So, I quit and I did practically nothing for a year. I was convinced I was doing something, I was starting all of these gigantic space operas that I was going to sell to "2000 AD" I was going to write them and draw them. I think about six months later I had gotten one page half penciled, some inks. (audience laughs) I just thought, why am I doing this? I realized it was because I was never going to finish it.
SL: You had set yourself an impossible task so that you would never have to be judged.
AM: Right. At that point I had decided to get serious and a friend of mine, Steve Moore, n relation, who had been working in comics since he was 16, told me how to actually lay out a script and I started submitting stuff to the British comics scene and it went on from there.
SL: You mentioned "2000 AD." That was quite a big deal, wasn't it, to give an outlet to british talent?
AM: I think it was because you had really funny, cynical writers working on "2000 AD" at that time. This was mainly Pat Mills and John Wagner who had previously spent eleven years working on the British girls comics. They had grown cynical and possibly actually evil (audience laughs) during this time. I think it was John who used to write a script called "The Blind Ballerina" and as the title suggested it was about a ballerina who was blind. John would just try to put her in to increasingly worse situations. At the end of each episode you'd have her evil Uncle saying, "Yes, come with me. You're going out on to the stage of the Albert Hall where you're going to give your premier performance" and it's the fast lane of the M1. (audience laughs) And she's sort of pirouetting and there's trucks bearing down on her.
SL: Those kind of things that were inappropriate in girls comics became a staple of "2000 AD."
AM: I mean, hell, they were funny even in the girls comics. But, when John got a science fiction comic to play with he could really amp up the humor. I saw this stuff and thought these people were intelligent, there's satirical stuff, I could maybe write something that would play to this audience and would also be interesting to me to write.
SL: I guess the kind of highest profile work you had at that time was "V for Vendetta."
AM: I was looking back at some of the actual British comics characters that I remembered from when I had been a child and most of them were sociopaths. You look at all the American heroes and that's what they are, they're heroes. I don't know whether it's something to do with Robin Hood or Hereward The Wake or Dick Turpin or all of these other thoroughly unpleasant people that we've made. Mad Frankie Frazier. (audience laughs) We love a gallant rogue and we also love a murdering, psychotic, horrific, travesty of a human being. I thought that maybe I could exploit this. I mean, maybe I could have a character where you could have some kind of grim, totalitarian police state in Britain in the unreachably far future like 1997. (audience laughs)
SL: One of your visions of that nightmare future was that there would be surveillance cameras on every street.
AM: I don't know if we would do a braille edition, but David Blunkett or somebody got ahold of it and this is all my fault in some obscure way.
SL: That strip was about a character who kind of wanted to destroy British government and society. Did that reflect some kind of anger you felt yourself during the Thatcher years?
AM: Well, yeah, I've always had a lot of sympathy with anarchy. During the Thatcher years, this was back in 1981 that I would have started writing "V for Vendetta," 1982 or something like that, the riots were kicking off at Southall and Toxteth and all of a sudden what had been a relatively stable country had now got very heavy handed riot police going in and beating up demonstrators. It was starting to look a bit futuristic and a bit grim. Basically, it was "V for Vendetta." I had got this fascist police state and this very romantic anarchist terrorist. There's still been some talk about doing a film of "V for Vendetta," but I don't know whether if America is ready for the terrorist hero just yet, you know. (audience laughs)
SL: There was a film of one of the other characters you're closely associated with, "Swamp Thing." It was an existing DC character that was kind of your break in to…
AM: I had started to win a few awards over here for things like "V for Vendetta," and these awards were voted for by 50 people in anoraks with awful social lives. (audience laughs) The American's, however, to them every award is an Oscar so they thought I was an award winning British genius.
SL: So they rewarded you by giving you one of their most unpopular characters. (audience laughs)
AM: Yeah, but it was much better to be given a comic that was on the verge of cancellation.
SL: Well you took it from 17,000 to 100,000, didn't you?
AM: Something like that.
SL: There were a lot of characters like that. The Heap, there was Man-Thing in Marvel Comics and Swamp Thing. They were all basically the same, which was a man who looked like he was sort of made of vegetables and lived in a swamp. And you did a standard Alan Moore move of taking a character on and totally changing the whole back-story and starting from scratch.
AM: Yeah, killed him off in the first issue! (audience laughs) People stood still for it because it was a dopey premise. The whole thing that the book hinged upon was there was this tragic individual who is basically like Hamlet covered in snot. (audience laughs) He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That's understandable, I mean I would too, but everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that's never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that the book finishes. Even the most nave reader is surely aware of that. So, I thought, let's turn it around and make that not an issue anymore. Let's see what's interesting about being a vegetable creature. You could make him kind of a swamp god, you could make him a kind of an elemental force, you could also use him to talk environmental issues. There were actually quite a lot of applications that you could give to this big, kind of animate manure pile! (audience laughs) You know, composte heap.
We did kind of a tour of America where we would take in some of the standard horror tropes, vampires and werewolves, and turn them in to things that were social problems in America at the time. That was quite instructive, actually, because there was no problem at all with doing stories that suggested that Americans were racist, sexist, all the rest of it. They said, "Yeah, we are, thanks for pointing that out to us!" (audience laughs) Then I did a story that suggested that perhaps, if they didn't have quite so many handguns, it might be a generally nicer place to live and they went berserk! (audience laughs)
SL: So, it's like someone going, "I picked up this comic about a sentient vegetable in good faith (audience laughs) and then found out it's got this leftist subtext to it."
After that I suppose you got to play with original characters for DC that you had created for "Watchmen" which is to this day something of a phenomenon in the comic book industry. It had your name bandied around the smiley face on the covers of "Watchmen" tied in with a kind of acid-house movement. It was very much a pop culture phenomenon. What was the premise of "Watchmen" then?
AM: It was extending the premise of a previous work of mine, Marvelman. That was a reinvention of a 1950s character that had always been an innocent, nave American super hero knock off. It was putting a character like that in to a real or at least more realistic world. That sounded interesting. It was like I was saying earlier about the motivation for super heroes and how difficult that is because there aren't really any sensible motivations for dressing as a Bat and fighting crime. I mean, your parents get killed in front of your eyes, that's tough, you know. No one's saying that that isn't difficult and wouldn't be traumatic. But, a bat? (audience laughs)
SL: There's a classic image from the early Batman comics where confronted with the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne says "Now, I will dress as a bat!" (audience laughs) I mean, that's not come out in 20th century psychology as a standard response.
AM: I did a parody of it in one of my recent comics where I have the main characters gunned down in front of his eyes. He says, "My parents have been gunned down in front of my eyes. I will become a mumbling, traumatized street person and scare everybody, not just criminals!" (audience laughs)
SL: Let's talk about the 500 page comic strip about the Jack the Ripper murders, which is probably one of the things a casual listener will know you from in that there was a Hollywood film of it a couple of years ago with Johnny Depp.
AM: "From Hell."
SL: Right, "From Hell," which was adapted from your work, but you've never seen it.
AM: Well, adapted very loosely.
SL: I suppose the beauty of the comic book is you've got these forty pages of foot notes, it's not really about Jack the Ripper, it's how we relate to the city of London and the psychological overtones. What that's boiled down in to in the film is a thing about a bloke who goes around killing women.
AM: Which was what we were trying to avoid in the book itself. There have been innumerable films about Jack the Ripper and I had gotten kind of a bit sick the way that Jack the Ripper … it was a kind of pornography. I don't mean that in a good way. (audience laughs) It was a pornography of violence. It was this standard set-up where you've got the unrealistically attractive Whitechapel prostitute who's obviously got a great wardrobe manager, great skin care specialist and she's walking home and she's perhaps singing some musical song in a slightly tipsy voice and then she'll turn down an alley way and you'll see this shadow follow her down the alley way. The shadow of the top hat, the gloves and the bag. Her footsteps start to get faster, you can start to see the fear in her eyes. Then, it's a dead end. She turns around, she starts to scream, you see the raised knife, then it cuts to a police man saying, (deep voiced) "Oh my God!" (audience laughs) and blowing his whistle. That's a pornography.
SL: What you're talking about there is a kind of eroticisation of sexual violence.
AM: Right. That's not exciting. That's just horrible. When the film came out, inevitably they made it a who done it. Inevitably the prostitutes are all implausibly attractive, again. I thought it was much better to sort of say, practically from the second chapter, yeah, this is William Gull who was the person that I picked as a fictional culprit for the Jack the Ripper crimes. Then, not to talk about who did it but to talk about what happened. Because, to a large degree I think that murder, which is a horrible human event, it's kind of been turned in to a middle class parlor game by a lot of very well meaning novelists.
SL: You seem to be applying to the Jack the Ripper story then the same kind of thing you did to the super heroes which is not who did this, but why did they do it.
AM: Well, exactly.
SL: I'm assuming you haven't seen the film of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
AM: No, no, no, no. (audience laughs) In fact, I'm getting worse instead of better with regard to the film. That was a spectacular tantrum, even by my standards, I surprised myself.
I've decided I don't want anything more to do with films at all. After all the stuff with "The League," there'd been some minor law suit with somebody claiming that I had gotten the idea from an American Hollywood screen writer and you can imagine how I felt about that. So, I felt, if I'm going to react I might as well over react. (audience laughs) So, I said, right, that's it, no more Hollywood films. And if they do make films of my work, then I want my name taken off them and I want all the money given to the artists. I thought, God, that sounds principled (audience laughs) and almost heroic! (audience laughs) Then I got a phone call from Karen Berger the next Monday, she's an editor at DC Comics, and she said, "Yeah, we're going to be sending you a huge amount of money before the end of the year because they're making this film if your Constantie character with Keanu Reeves." I said, "Right, OK. (audience laughs) Well, take my name off of it and distribute my money amongst the other artists. I felt, well, that was difficult, but I did it and I feel pretty good about meself. Then I saw David Gibbons who I had done "Watchmen" with and he was saying, "Oh Alan, guess what, they're making the 'Watchmen' film." And I said, with tears streaming down my face, "Take my name off of it David. (sniffles)" (audience laughs) "You have all the money." Then I got a check for the "V for Vendetta" film. It was just, this was within three days!
SL: You must have believed there was some sort of God punishing you.
AM: Or at least he's got kind of a sense of humor. (audience laughs) I don't know what I was thinking, but I've said it now so I've got to kind of stick with it. But, on the other hand, just for the look on Hollywood producer's faces, "If he doesn't want the money, what does he want?" (audience laughs)
SL: You can't put a price on that.
AM: You can't, not that sort of entertainment. (audience laughs)
SL: The weird thing about you going through all of that darkness with "From Hell" and those very sinister notions is the next work I was kind of aware of is you were going back to a much more innocent approach to the super hero genre with Supreme and some of the subsequent stuff with ABC. You weren't embarrassed about there being a super dog.
AM: I loved all that stuff. I remembered what it was that I actually enjoyed about Superman when I had been a kid. Yeah, allright, there's the power fantasy I suppose. Like, gosh, if I were Superman then people wouldn't beat me up, but that's not really it. I think that it was purely because Superman and characters like that, they suddenly opened up this kind of wonderful dimension of the imagination that I had previously not had access to because these ideas were brilliantly stupid. I mean dogs with capes and Batman's dog had got a mask in case any of the other dogs recognized him. (audience laughs)
SL: What I had always regretted in the Supereme/Superman pastiche is that even though you took on a lot of the really ridiculous things about Superman, he didn't have a super Moby Dick of space character. I don't know if you remember that.
AM: That was a wonderful dream you've had. (audience laughs)
SL: No, it was whale. An early '70s Superman comic, it's a whale in space with a little red cape on (audience laughs) and it flies around.
AM: I wish I had remembered that! I'm going to check it out now that you've mentioned it.
SL: Might be some opportunity for a kind of dark take on that, where it perhaps comes back with some sort of grudge against whalers or something. (audience laughs)
AM: Yeah, I'll give him depth, traumas and issues.
SL: And a bad leg. (audience laughs)
AM: Bad leg, definitely.
SL: The last thing I wanted to talk about is there's a comic you do through ABC called "Promethea," which looks like kind of a Wonder Woman derived notion of a young girl with a secret identity and this kind of magical amazon…(feed drops out)… a magical drone disguised as a super hero comic. Presumably, that dove tails in to the position you've found yourself in where now it's a big part of your life.
AM: When I was just about to turn 40 I was reviewing my options and I thought I could have a midlife crisis and just bore everybody senseless by going around saying what's it all about, what's the secret of life. Or I could actually really, really disturb and terrify them (audience laughs) by actually saying yes, I've decided to become a magician. I've decided to become a master sorcerer. That really put them on the spot because it sounds so obviously mad, but they didn't seem to want to argue it with me because I had through it through quite well. I mean, my initial stance was to tell all my friends and loved ones look, I don't know what I'm doing with this, it sounds like it's probably dangerous according to all the literature I've read, 9/10ths of them all end up barmy. So, if it looks like I'm going mad, then perhaps you could kind of pull me out of this. So, they were saying, "Well, how are we going to know?" (audience laughs) I said, good point, good point. The only thing that I could think of was if the standard of my work, or the amount of productivity starts to drop, that is a time to get concerned. That didn't happen. (feed drops out) …
SL: …I don't know if the American writer Robert Anton Wilson were on a list of ten Alan Moore heroes, he experimented with following a different religion every week, or a different belief system to see if they would work. He started off with Catholicisim, Buddhism, whatever, and by the end of the book he's just getting little and trying to divine it like runes. He was of the opinion that if you stuck to a belief system you'd see it confirmed in the world around you. Is that kind of what you're doing here, choosing an option and seeing if it works?
AM: I think yeah. Basically, that's true. If you adopt a belief system, a belief will change your entire way of seeing things.
SL: It's funny, because when I was sort of mapping out the narrative of this interview, I sort of thought that talking about your experiments with magic at the end would bring it to a close, but it feels like it opens up…
AM: A whole can of worms.
SL: So, I don't really know how to stop this now. (audience laughs) It would be good if you could just say something kind of pithy that will help stop it.
AM: That's wildly optimistic. I suppose the thing with magic is that a lot of it is about writing anyway. To cast a spell, that's a fancy way of saying spelling. Grimoire, the big book of magical secrets, that's a French way of saying grammar. It's all about language and writing. It's all about incantation, all these things. Magic, really, it turns out to just be a continuation of the stuff that I've been doing anyway. Using certain arrangements of words or images to affect people's consciousness.
SL: You know what, that sounds like a good end. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming, Alan Moore. (audience claps)
Next week Moore will take the interviewers chair and chat with musician Brian Eno.
As many of our readers are in the States, our own Rich Johnston, a life long London resident, helped out by explaining some of the people and names mentioned in the text of the interview that might not have any immediate meaning for Americans.
"David Blunkett was our Home Secretary, one of the senior government ministers under Blair, in charge of the country's affairs, including law and order. He's been rather draconian of late - until he had to resign as his adulterous love life and parental identity of two children came to light. He is blind.
"Dick Turpin was a real highwayman, who would hold up coaches and steal jewellrey and belongings from the wealthy travellers. As a result, all the women loved him, some wished to be robbed by him. He was eventually caught and hanged.
"Wellingtons are rubber boots, galoshes, named after the Duke of Wellington's style."
"Mad Frankie Fraser was a gangster in the sixties/seventies in London. Now rehabilitated as a media figure of fascination.
"The M1 is our central motorway or freeway, going down the middle of the country, north to south."
When Moore mentions byron he's referring to the poet Lord Byron.
Special thanks to Rich Johnston for his assistance with this transcription and Dana Ezekiel for technical assistance.