Back in the eighties you were the first British writer to work on major comic book titles in the USA. How was that for you?
It was certainly interesting. The comics industry had just got through the seventies, which hadn’t been easy. They’d fired most of their genuinely talented writers at the end of the sixties after they tried to form a union to get better working conditions. To replace them the heads at DC had got in a bunch of comic book fans - who were only too happy to be working on their favourite childhood characters - and would never dream of suggesting anything as uncouth as a union – by God it was bleak!
At one point they got in a bunch of Filipino artists, because their home-grown artists had got lazy, working with talented inkers or colourists, who could hide all the flaws of the drawing – whereas the Filipino artists were used to working for black and white, so they did all of these shading techniques and heavy black areas, and things that proper illustrators are supposed to do. They were brilliant artists; people like Alfredo Alcala and Rudy Nebres. They reinvigorated the comics industry, but the American publishers decided that they didn’t feel right paying Filipino artists more than they were paying their Filipino help.
So they brought in something called Filipino rates, a special rate that was much lower than they paid to the inferior American artists. When they heard that there were artists and writers springing up in England a few years after, they must have thought they could repeat the trick. Some of the first people they got over there were Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. Then they got me over there too and that was where it all started to go horribly wrong. They had pretty much alienated me within three or four years.
Do you think you helped pave the way for other British writers like Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis?
I guess so. I think Warren and Neil were both at least a little influenced by my style, but I don’t think Garth, ever was. He was being influenced by other people all together. But, whatever their influences, those people very quickly established their own style and took the medium further from there.
You helped to bring an ‘adult audience’ to the comics and the term ‘graphic novel’ was coined?
For my sins, I was definitely part of all that and after a few years, they decided to try and set up a little ‘Alan Moore farm’ with Karen Berger’s Vertigo imprint for DC. All the writers were instructed to “write this like Alan Moore.” This was not something I was in favour of, I thought it debased and diluted what I was trying to do. I’ve got no objection to a kind of agency, where genuinely talented writers like Warren, and Neil and Garth have been able to extend their careers and blossom into the genuinely talented writers that they are. It’s just irritating to have one's stylistic quirks and outlook misunderstood and made into a formula.
Where people have tried to follow that formula, they seem to have got as far as striking a radical posture, but have never committed themselves to a political position or done anything radical to offend the companies on whom they depend for their income. The mainstream comic scene has been a tremendous disappointment to me over the years. I’d say the main effect of my influence in the US has been to unleash a lot of pretentious and posturing comics upon the world, when the world has never really done anything to hurt me.
You’ve created a lot of amazing characters, that my generation have grown up with by reading your comics. John Constantine (Hellblazer) was originally one of yours, wasn’t he?
Yeah. He was created as a background character for DC’s Swamp Thing. But before I had even started work on that comic, DC had signed a ridiculous contract for the Swamp Thing films as they were desperate to get into that market. So they sold the rights to make films about any characters that appeared in those comics, past, present and future. That was why there was a Constantine film; with Keanu Reeves playing a guy who had originally grown up in South London – those rights had been sold away before he was even created.
Are there any of your characters that feel you’ve put a lot of yourself into?
I put myself into all of them. Whether they are heroes, villains, males, females, inhuman monsters, or demigods; in order to make them credible, you have to put yourself into their mindset and into their life. It’s very much like method acting, and once you’ve done that, the dialogue is easy. So, in that sense they’re all favourites. I remember reading, or at least trying to read, a French review of Watchmen, back in the early days, which seemed to come to the conclusion, that I was some kind of composite of Dr Manhattan, and of Ozymandias.
I can think of others I’d say you’re more like…
I suppose there are plenty. Certainly in many ways I’m like Rorschach, as the comics industry has probably learned to its dismay over time. But all of them, all them, have to be real and one of the great pleasures of it is putting your mind into completely different situations. It was a great deal of fun writing Swamp Thing – to try and imagine what a humanised vegetable would have in the way of sensibilities, and thought processes. It was also very interesting writing Dr Manhattan (Watchmen) and trying to come up with a sort of post-quantum viewpoint for the character, where all of time was happening simultaneously.
It was fantastic writing William Gull (From Hell), even though I was probably an oppressive presence to most of my loved ones during that time. Melinda pointed out that when I was writing as him I would take on different mannerisms; there would be a certain tone of voice, a certain sardonic Victorian quality, in some of my speech. These things infect you. You have to open yourself, to potential invasion and allow yourself to be possessed, by a multitude of different voices.
Do you think you prefer inventing new characters, or taking on old ones and reinventing them?
There are different processes between the two. But there are lots of similarities as well. When you’re starting out, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be allowed to create your own characters. I was lucky that 2000AD were so much more flexible than the American companies, and I was able to create Halo Jones, and stuff like that. When I was offered Swamp Thing, I’d already done revision jobs on MarvelMan and Captain Britain, so I had at least some idea of what I was doing. My technique back then was to destroy the character in the very first episode and then rebuild them, in a more workable form. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of identifying the problems with Swamp Thing. He hadn’t really got any genuine motivation - yes he was supposedly motivated by his quest to become human again - but even the dimmest reader would have realised that if that ever have happened it would be the last issue of the book. So I decided to take it another way – and come up with a positive identity for him, as a plant elemental, where he gives up on being human and starts to enjoy the possibilities of his vegetable form. That seemed to me to open up lots of avenues of doing all sorts of cool things, which we explored throughout the rest of the series.
With Allan Quartermain (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), you were reinventing a character first written in the 19th century…
Yes, although ours is a different Allan Quartermain, in that, he’s older and has faked his own death. But most of the qualities that we show him having are those of the original character. His fondness for drugs is suggested by the several adventures in which he ingests taduki and his physical cowardliness, or, wariness, is also present in H Rider Haggard's original.
Did you find similar challenges reinventing all of the League characters?
Yes, for example the Mr Hyde in Stevenson’s book is much smaller than Jekyll. But towards the end of the book Jekyll remarks that he thinks that Hyde is getting bigger. So by the time that we pick up the narrative, roughly ten years later, Hyde is very, very big indeed and Jekyll has practically faded away. All of these things may seem like radical interpretations, but most of them are taken from cues in the original text.
So, is that also true for all the characters in Watchmen? Because there were blueprints for those characters as characters on the Charlton Comics imprint, right?
Yes, but the idea that I was applying to them was one that I had earlier and could have been applied to any lame superhero group. I’d originally thought of a story involving Archie Comics Superheroes, thinking that if one of them turned up dead it would change everything!
So when Dick Giordano asked me to come up with a story into which the Charlton characters would work, I thought we could do something. But then when he saw what that would mean for these newly purchased characters (i.e. that most of them would be either dead or mad by the end of the book) he suggested we come up with some different characters of our own, instead. This was great, because it freed us up to actually think of characters that were more interesting than the originals.
So we took the idea of an atomic superhero from Captain Atom, but he was conceived of when our ideas of the atomic realm were a lot more simplistic than they are today. So I asked myself what an atomic superhero would do today and I decided it would all have to be based upon quantum principles. Dr Manhattan grew from that. So yeah - if we hadn’t just come up with the outline for the Charlton thing - if they’d have just said come up with a group of superheroes, and tell your story about them… then we could have done that just as easily. But the characters would probably be quite different.
When the Occupy movement kicked off last year – the V from V For Vendetta mask became a major visual symbol of the movement. How did that make you feel.
I was flattered. I thought it was a much better organised protest movement than anything that we saw in the 1960’s. When it was happening, Channel 4 took me down to this camp, and I got to meet these guys and girls, and I think they’re terrific and really well organised. They’ve got a lot of hard work in front of them and the recent setbacks demonstrate that. But they’re resilient and they’re evolving. With a bit of luck, I think they may be around for a while yet.
I’ve just recorded a track for Occupy records and done this big piece for Occupy comics. It was originally was just going to be a short essay, but I think I’m long past the point where I can do short essays about anything. So it turned into 21,000 words and they’re print excerpts from it in Occupy comics, and then publish the whole thing as a book, with the funds going to help the movement.
When you came to talk at Nottingham Contemporary, did you manage to see much in the city?
I didn’t get to see that much, Melinda got to see more than I did. She went out and saw the sights and got some photographs. If I’m away from home I tend to spend a lot of time in my hotel room, just decompressing. I enjoy meeting people, but you have to remember that writers, pretty much by definition, are people that spend most of their lives in a room on their own.
The magazine you run, Dodgem Logic, is basically like an ode to Northampton culture like we are to Nottingham…
Yes it is. Hopefully at some point in the future, we might be able to get it going again. But I think we should all pay more attention to the actual places that we live in, because they’re all wonderful. And rather than berating them or complaining about them, we should actually appreciate the things that are mythical and powerful about them.
That doesn’t mean buying into the way our civic leaders want us to perceive the towns that we live in. Quite the opposite; it means coming up with our own interpretation and our own way of seeing our environment. Doing this can actually improve our lives, improve the way we feel about ourselves and the places where we live. So yeah, Dodgem Logic was very much an attempt to do that.
So why the hiatus with that?
Well, there are a lot of magazines out there that are selling less copies than Dodgem Logic was. But we’d gone into it with an ideological, hippy, underground wave of enthusiasm. I’d decided I didn’t want any paid adverts. Because if that’s good enough for Paul Krassner, when he did The Realist, arguably the twentieth centuries first underground paper, then that’s good enough for me.We also wanted to pay all of our contributors a decent rate, and we wanted good enough production values so the brilliant artists and photographers that we were showcasing would feel good about having their work being portrayed in a magazine. So all of this is basically a recipe for publishing disaster… but the magazine did exactly what we wanted it to do and I’m really, really proud of it.
It’s beautifully produced. You can see it’s a labour of love...
I particularly like the fact that we’ve got some people writing in there who are at the absolute top of their field like Stewart Lee, Michael Moorcock and Robin Ince. Then, alongside them, we’ve got people who’ve never done anything in print before. It overturned the whole idea of hierarchy and status and celebrity – it was just, everybody doing what they did best. I’m really glad we did it that way. If that meant that it folded after eight issues, then that’s the way that it should’ve gone. Dodgem Logic will remain one of the projects of mine that I am most proud of.
The Olympics is now upon us, any thoughts on it?
I have no interest in sports at all. But I’m appalled that historic Hackney and all its stories are being paved over by this appalling monstrosity, which we can’t afford and which has never benefitted any of the countries that have hosted it. Competitive sports are one of the few things in culture that don’t seem to derive from Shamans. Most of the art and most of the actual consciousness in society - is almost certainly derived from Shamanic roots. With sport, I can only assume that it was when the hunters wanted to show off.
You’ve always refused to put your name to film adaptions of your work. I know this is going to be hard to put a figure on, but how much money do you think you’ve turned down, for taking a moral standpoint on this?
Well, they asked me if they could give me a huge amount of money to bring out these Watchmen prequel comics – which they were going to do anyway - and that was probably a couple of million dollars. I should imagine with all of the films it would be another few million? In a way it’s really empowering to do that. You can’t buy that kind of empowerment. To just know that as far as you are aware, you have not got a price; that there is not an amount of money large enough to make you compromise even a tiny bit of principle that, as it turned out, would make no practical difference anyway. I’d advise everyone to do it, otherwise you’re going to end up mastered by money and that’s not a thing you want ruling your life. Money’s fine if it enables you to enjoy your life and to be useful to other people. But as something that is a means to an end, no, it’s useless.
Alan Moore appeared at the Nottingham Contemporary in May 2012. Our thanks to the staff there and to Joe at Dodgem Logic for helping us organise this interview.
Dogem Logic website