Pyrotechnics: Alan Moore on Anarchy, Psychedelics, and the Art of Storytelling.

Credit: Mitch Jenkins

"If there are parts of my work that are unsatisfactory or even just plain bad, I’d much rather they were left in full view for posterity, so that young aspiring writers and artists can have the same thrilled realisation that I once did – “Hey, once this great genius that I so deeply admire was as sloppy and incompetent as I am!” This is a response that is likely to give emerging creators hope and to provide genuine inspiration, whereas a notionally ‘perfect’ work is only intended to create an impression of awe." -Alan Moore

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What is there to say about Alan Moore that hasn't been said already?

Often regarded as one of the greatest comic book authors of all time, Alan has maneuvered within the framework of the medium for decades now; writing seminal titles for enthusiasts of comics and great literature alike.

The Northampton product has never shied away from mature themes in his titles and has often explored deep philosophical and psychological ideas like anarchy, determinism, psychosis, and sexuality. By probing into the collective psyches of his characters, we are given an enlightening peek into the inner-workings of society-at-large. 

While some of his titles have quite literally revolutionized the way we view comic books (a la Watchmen and V for Vendetta) his well documented disputes with the owners of these properties and their insistence on cross medium adaptation and repackaging has caused him to be vitriolic towards these works in recent years.

It is with great pleasure that I bring you an interview with the bearded bard himself.

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Prox: Many of your most iconic characters have an intimate relationship with psychological and spiritual damage. In your opinion and in relation to your creative process, how does this add depth and meaning to a story’s narrative?

Alan: I’ve always felt that the inclusion of psychologically or spiritually abnormal or damaged characters in my narratives was simply (a) ordinary human realism, and (b) ordinary human literary values. Surely most memorable literature, even including a majority of the comedy, is predicated upon non-standard psychologies, largely because in real life, these are the psychologies that most of us possess? Without glaring mental aberrations or profound character flaws, would there ever have emerged a Shakespeare, a Cervantes, or, indeed, any human narratives that were worth committing to paper in the first place? The inclusion of such characters doesn’t simply add depth and meaning to a narrative – more usually, such characters either are the narrative, or are its most powerful driving components. In this way, our fiction clearly mirrors our everyday social reality, in that many of the most prominent figures in both our pulp entertainment and our daily newspaper headlines are fairly evidently psychopaths.

Prox: I’m quite curious about the non-linear structure present in some of your titles and how it relates to the psychedelic experience. Do you think hallucinogenic substances gave you a better understanding of how to apply the abstract nature of emotion, memory, and reality to your works?

Alan: In my current understanding of the phenomenon, what psychedelic drugs do to the human mind is to impair the brain’s ability to keep the specialised areas of function that it has developed separate from each other. This creates a greater interdependence between those areas and functions, and in this way returns our consciousness to something more resembling its new-born infant state, but with the massive advantages of a developed intellect and a facility for language. In my own experience, the result of this suddenly-more-integrated mental state is that one becomes aware of the tremendous ocean of signals and different kinds of information that inform our every instant of existence: one notices the richness of the immediate sensory level of our awareness; one becomes aware of the monumental forces of physics that in some ways constrain our abilities while at the same time allowing the complex entirety of the spectacular universe in which we find ourselves; one appreciates the purely narrative substance that makes up the greater part of our identities, whether as individuals or as societies; one comes to understand the massive energies that our location in both history and geography exert upon us, with our politics as a necessary consequence of these things; one grasps what Jung described as the ‘forest of symbols’ through which our consciousness progresses, and one perceives that our human reality is a thing of many simultaneous levels, all happening at once but mostly filtered out by an ordinary waking mind that is only concerned with holding down a job in the material world and has no room for revelation or ecstasy.

What these perceptions have brought to my own work, much more importantly than the occasional psychedelic pyrotechnic displays that I’m prone to, is the basic knowledge that all of these diverse levels on which our existence can be understood are vital to our moment-by-moment perceptual reality, whether we are consciously aware of them or not. Thus, in my writing, I have tried to realise my characters and my landscapes as multivalent entities that incorporate as many of these experiential strata as possible, in order to provide my readers with a deep experience that approximates the complexity and splendour of their own (often unconscious) mental processes, and is therefore more likely to immerse them in a reality that is at least as rich, as intense and as profound as the reality that they are more usually tuned into. It has never been the escapism inherent in the psychedelic experience that has interested me, but rather the diamond-sharp focus and involvement that such perceptions bring to the mundane material world in which we all physically exist.

Prox: Do you ever revisit old works and spot alterations you could have made? What do you feel are some of the most misunderstood elements of these titles or your work in general?

Alan: Well, with the considerable volume of my work that is now owned by emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically and ethically handicapped comics publishers – including things like Watchmen, V for Vendetta and the whole of the ABC line except for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – I have disowned it. The practical advantage of this is that if the American entertainment industry assigns the very best American writers it can scrape together to create a comic book, cinematic, or televisual version of, say, Watchmen, so that modern middle-aged American superhero fans will finally have a chance of understanding it, then I don’t have to suffer any of the inevitable subsequent embarrassment and humiliation. Other than the satisfaction of knowing that I was the one person who didn’t sell these once-important works down the river at the first opportunity, the main result of this disowning is that I don’t keep copies of any of this material around the house and will hopefully never have to look at it or think about it again, which of course means that there’s nothing I’d like to correct about any of these books, except in some instances my well-intentioned impulse to write them in the first place.

With the works that I do own or else co-own with my fellow creators, all of which are very dear to me, other than the occasional niggling typo or factual error that I’ve been too lazy to correct – there’s a place in the appendices of From Hell where I’ve misidentified A Prayer for the Dying as The Long Good Friday, along with a bunch of lesser mistakes – I wouldn’t change a word of anything that I’ve ever written. This is not through arrogance or a belief that everything I wrote was perfect or even adequate, so much as an acknowledgment that my work, with all of its flaws and faults, was a perfect record of where I was, internally and externally, when it was written. To alter any of that work; to brush it up or to release a ‘director’s cut’, would feel to me like a denial of the integrity that my earlier self put into every line of dialogue or caption box, like an attempt to change the record for purposes of vanity. Further to this, I’ve always been rather disappointed in accomplished artists and writers attempting to sand away the necessarily rough edges of their creative processes: Francis Bacon’s insistence that he never worked from preliminary drawings (he did), or Jack Kerouac’s fostering of the legend that On the Road was composed in a spontaneous flood typed out upon an endless roll of paper analogous to the road itself (he worked from notebooks) provide ready examples. The intention of this retroactive tidying of one’s narrative would seem to be to present the artist as an almost godlike entity that has no need for preliminary thought or practice of any kind. The negative effect of this conceited posturing is to discourage emergent artists and writers by leading them to believe in this excluding fantasy of the divinely-touched creator. If there are parts of my work that are unsatisfactory or even just plain bad, I’d much rather they were left in full view for posterity, so that young aspiring writers and artists can have the same thrilled realisation that I once did – “Hey, once this great genius that I so deeply admire was as sloppy and incompetent as I am!” This is a response that is likely to give emerging creators hope and to provide genuine inspiration, whereas a notionally ‘perfect’ work is only intended to create an impression of awe. Awe is generally oppressive and is only a hindrance and a discouragement to potentially creative individuals. Much better that we leave our dirty laundry as part of our public exhibition. Better, and less pretentious, however much internal squirming this full-disclosure process puts us through.

Prox: I had no idea until recently that you were a proponent of determinism. Could you discuss some of the ideologies and philosophies that you came across over the years that helped you reach this conclusion? How does this clash with your anarchist sentiments?

Alan: My earliest inklings of the philosophical position that I have since learned is known as ‘Eternalism’ came when, as a small child, I idly pondered the fading photographs and Daguerreotypes of Victorian forbears – grandfathers and great-grandfathers I’d never known – that hung framed in the murky upper reaches of our tiny living room. It struck me that though these people were all dead and in the past, at the moment that the shutter clicked and captured their reflected light behind it, they were living and aware and in the unrepeatable sunlight of that instant. Almost simultaneously, I was struck by the notion that at some point in the future, after my own death, there would be people staring at photographs of me and wondering what I was thinking on that afternoon or when that flashbulb popped. This seemed such a certainty that it seemed to me as if those people studying those posthumous photographs of me were already doing so at some point in a future that already existed just as surely as the past did. Over the years, I’d occasionally come across writings that seemed to chime with this point of view – Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five for example – and would include the notion of space-time as a predetermined solid in many of my earlier writings, as with Dr. Manhattan’s perspective in Watchmen and Dr. William Gull’s discussions of the fourth dimension and a potential architecture to history in From Hell

When I underwent what I understood to be my first magical experience in the first week of 1994, this trans-time viewpoint impacted upon me as an immediate and present human reality rather than as an abstract intellectual speculation. Consequently, I began to take the idea of an already-existent future much more seriously, a notion strengthened by my burgeoning interest in Tarot and other forms of divination: after all, the divining of the future presupposes the existence of a fixed and determined future that can be divined. These and similar considerations, which as far as I could tell were perfectly congruent with modern physics post-Einstein, eventually led to the theory underpinning every aspect of my recent novel Jerusalem, which is to say that space-time is an eternal hyper-solid in which nothing moves and nothing changes, and in which only the movement of our consciousness along what might be described as the universe’s time-axis creates the illusion of movement and change and narrative and continuity. This is analogous to a strip of celluloid film-stock, in which the individual frames are immobile and frozen and unchanging. Only when the beam of a projector (or the light of our consciousness) plays across these individual static images does Charlie Chaplin do his funny walk, and save the girl, and foil the villain. Only then do we receive the illusion of narrative and consequence and morality. One consequence of this is that every moment is in itself eternal, including those that comprise our mortal lives. This suggests that death itself is only a perspective illusion common to the third dimension, and that at the point of our demise our conscious awareness has nowhere to go save for back to its starting point with one’s birth. This would suggest an endless cycle of repetition, of which we would know nothing and where every apparent recurrence of our lives would seem to us like the first time they had happened, save for those unsettling instances of Deja-vu. When I was already about a third of the way into Jerusalem I came across a beautiful quotation attributed to Einstein, who was consoling the widow of a fellow physicist, some few months before Einstein’s own death. He told her that death wasn’t really a serious issue for physicists such as her late husband or himself, because they understood “the persistent illusion of transience”. This expresses the whole concept much more elegantly in five words than I could ever hope to do in a 1,200-page novel, and has ended up as the epigram commencing Jerusalem’s third and final section.

As to this clashing or conflicting with my political position as an anarchist, I can’t really see how it would do so. Anarchy is a stance that demands no leaders and accepts the responsibilities that must inevitably stem from such an attitude. This is the limit of the freedoms which it seeks. It does not seek freedom from the physical conditions of the universe – hence no anarchist initiatives to repeal the law of gravity, for example – since this would be a delusional and useless standpoint. And if space-time is predetermined, while it would greatly inconvenience religious notions of free will upon which ideas of sin and virtue are based, to the ordinary three-dimensional human being it will make not a whit of difference to his or her experience of the world. We will continue to act as if we possess free will, because that is what we are predetermined to do. Perhaps Einstein’s quote could be improved by the addition of the word “necessary” between “persistent” and “illusion”.

Credit: Joe Brown

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Prox: A lot has changed within yourself and the global landscape since you’ve began as an author but what would you say has had the most profound impact on you and your mission? What motivates you as an author today compared to what did in your youth?

Alan: It’s true that a great deal has changed in the fifty years since I was formulating my essential worldview as a teenager, but in terms of my teenage expectation that the future would become increasingly complex and thus increasingly chaotic, I don’t think that anything has happened to suggest that my initial prognosis was in any way flawed or inadequate. As a teenager my mission, such as it was, was to successfully navigate an increasingly fluid if not actually vaporous material and psychological environment using my art as a vehicle and, in addition, as a means to share any useful techniques or conceptual tools that I happened to discover with those of a similar orientation. The intervening decades and their often-monstrous permutations have only made this mission seem more necessary, and thus my motivation remains almost exactly the same as it was at its outset, save that I hope it has become more sophisticated in its conception and implementation. 

Prox: As the world continues to shift, I often wonder about where we should be redirecting our energy as people. Without giving too much away, could you tell us about some ideas and themes you have been wanting to explore throughout your career that you haven’t been able to yet?

Alan: This seems to be two questions. Regarding the issue of where we should direct our energies in an increasingly psychologically and materially fragmented world, I believe that we could do worse than work towards the reintegration of those areas of human activity that have become divorced from each other during the development of a compartmentalised civilisation: our spirituality or our metaphysical tendencies should be connected to our artistic expression, with both fields profiting immeasurably from the result. Our art should then be connected to our scientific endeavour, again to the betterment of both parties. Finally, and perhaps most improbably, our science should connect with our politics, offering the potential for evidence-based government. We need to completely revise almost all of our social institutions, most of which are based upon principles that are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old and which are clearly no longer applicable in a world that has seen as much change, disaster and innovation in the last couple of years as in the whole of combined previous human history. I would go so far as to say that we need to evolve past the ideas of nation and government which seem increasingly responsible for our greatest human problems. We already have the technology to create a world of interdependent but autonomous small communities, where the solution to local problems rests in local hands, and to replace our often-problematic human leaders with a simply effective administration such as the ‘niche’ Artificial Intelligence currently running the complex traffic and transport system of (I believe) Hong Kong with unprecedented efficiency. Most of us have had to get used to the idea that one day machines that were more efficient than we would replace us in our jobs and careers, and I really don’t see why government should be immune to the same sort of creeping redundancy. A universal basic income and a new currency that removed the need for banks might also be a good idea. All of this, while it may sound radical, is simply asking for a reimagined world that actually works for the betterment of most of its population, rather than for that of a microscopically tiny enclave of the ultra-rich that seem to have emerged, like a cancerous growth, from our mismanaged and unstable economic systems. I am convinced that for our continued survival we need to adopt a system something like this, and the continuing deterioration of our environment suggests that we need to do it relatively quickly.

As to any ideas that I haven’t had a chance to express yet…no, that isn’t really how it works, or at least not for me. That seems to imply that creators are somehow female in their mental biology, and that ideas are like ova: one is born with all the eggs or ideas that one will ever deploy, and you’d best hope that you live long enough to realise them all. In reality, this isn’t the process. While odd fragments – a character’s name here, a brief scene there – might linger in the mind and be useful as material for some new endeavour, in practice it will always be the ideas that are newest and freshest to you that will provide the energy and inspiration for your best work. This plays into a common assumption that people often make about the act of writing: they assume, not unreasonably, that a writer will first have an idea, and then they will write it down. What actually happens is that most ideas are engendered, mysteriously, in the act of writing itself. So, no, any ideas that I’ve had that were worthwhile have been taken care of somewhere in my extensive bibliography. Sooner or later a new idea will slowly coalesce and will be immediately incorporated into whatever seems to be the most suitable vehicle at that time. I’ve recently considered, for example, that it might be interesting to engage more seriously with poetry, although the content of that poetry is something that I’ll only recognise when I’m actually sitting down with the intention of writing a poem. Premeditated ideas that have been idling around the brain for years will probably turn out to be stale and useless. After all, if they’d really been that good, how would you have been able to resist using them sooner?

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Prox: Are there any artists, books, movies/TV shows or music you’d like to recommend to the readers?

Alan: I hardly ever watch movies or television, but I very much enjoy the work of Andrew Kötting (Swandown, By Ourselves), Ben Wheatley (Free Fire, High-Rise, A Field in England), and the increasingly rare outings of Chris Petit (Radio On, The Falconer). On TV I really liked the two seasons of Utopia, am always delighted when Stewart Lee gets a new series of his Comedy Vehicle, and continue to be very impressed by the writing of Vince Gilligan on Better Call Saul. The contemporary art world I know almost nothing of, but Jimmy Cauty’s dioramas of urban collapse and a coup d’état Police force are sobering and wonderful in equal measure. Books make up the greater part of my relatively few leisure activities: I would heartily recommend Iain Sinclair’s The Last London, and I’m eagerly anticipating both the follow-up to Michael Moorcock’s Whispering Swarm – one of the best things he’s ever done – and the final volume of Brian Catling’s hallucinatory Vorrh trilogy. I’ve also recently enjoyed a beautiful and compelling account of rearing a goshawk, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which turned up in the mail from an unknown benefactor, and am currently engrossed in Jane Jacobs’ masterful contrarian view of urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Oh, and anybody out there who has not yet absorbed Jarett Kobek’s i hate the internet should do so immediately if they hope to ever understand our current ridiculous historical predicament.

Musically, I remain an ardent admirer of Brian Eno – his version of the Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free on The Ship is tremendous – although I’ve also rather taken to the Sleaford Mods. And you should watch out for a young rapper/performance poet operating under the handle of Testament. I had the good fortune to be sharing a bill with him some months ago, and his reinterpretation of William Blake’s poem London was nothing short of transporting.

Prox: Could you share some information with us about your upcoming projects or releases?

Alan: Well, since I’m currently concluding my comic writing career, my current range of projects are for once down to a small and almost manageable number: at the moment, I am having enormous fun writing the fourth and final volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is titled The Tempest, and which represents the final comic work of myself, my brilliant collaborator of the last twenty years, Kevin O’Neill, and our transcendental colourist, Benedict Dimagmaliw. In the course of its six old-fashioned floppy comic-book issues we’ll be tying up all of the plot threads from the first volume onwards, including all the ones that readers hadn’t even noticed were there, and will hopefully be providing some instruction on how to successfully wrap up one of the longest and broadest fictional continuities imaginable. We will also, in our highly diverse presentation, be paying tribute to all of the genuinely marvellous things that attracted us to the comic medium in the first place, while at the same time, in our story’s content and implications we will hopefully be explaining – in an entertaining fashion – exactly why we cannot bear to remain involved in the comic field for a moment longer. Paradoxically, it’s the most fun either Kevin or I can remember having with a comic strip, and both of us are starting to feel that this is probably our best and most accomplished work together. We certainly give the comic medium a pretty thorough workout, and this should be coming out sometime later this year, when we’ve enough issues in hand to assure a monthly schedule.

When I’m finished with The League, my next project in terms of published work will be to handle and oversee the final visual details of The Moon & Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, although since these details are numerous I cannot announce any publication date as yet. Other than in print media, I’m expecting to start work with the director Mitch Jenkins in March on The Show, the feature film that follows on from our Show Pieces cycle of short films. I imagine we’ll begin casting in a week or two, and that we probably won’t be done with work on the movie until sometime late in 2018. Another feature which is slowly bubbling away on the back-burner is the realisation of my uncompleted operatic project focussed on the life of Elizabethan Magus and world-shaper, Dr. John Dee, which musicians Howard Gray and Jake Black are developing when they get a chance, and which I’ll hopefully get a chance to finish writing the libretto of when I’ve got some of these other long-standing projects concluded. After that, I’m looking forward to having a blank slate in terms of commitments, so that I can engage with anything that appeals to me. Perhaps cage-fighting. Thousands of booksellers - millions of books.

Prox: Final Thoughts?

Alan: Yes: cherish the astonishing and unlikely world that we all exist in; try to live with love and without fear; and anybody who has anything to do with any of these shitty Watchmen travesties, even as a member of the audience, will be dragged screaming to hell by their nipples. Peace out. 

For more information on Alan and his work head over to his Facebook, Knockabout's Official Website, or Lex Records.

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