Review: 'Alan Moore: Conversations' is a useful compendium of all things Moore

A comic review article by: Eric Hoffman

Full disclosure: Together with Dominick Grace, I co-edited two volumes of the Conversations with Comic Artists series, of which this book is a part, Dave Sim: Conversations and Chester Brown: Conversations. A third, Seth: Conversations, is forthcoming from UPM in 2014.

There’s an interesting comment made in an early (1981) interview with celebrated comic book auteur Alan Moore: in conversation with his V for Vendetta collaborator David Lloyd, conducted just on the cusp of his taking comicdom by storm in the mid-1980s in a quartet of venerated comic books for DC, then in a post-implosion slump, Moore remarks that “the [comics] medium is possibly one of the most exciting and underdeveloped areas in the whole cultural spectrum. There’s a lot of virgin ground yet to be broken and a hell of a lot of things that haven’t been attempted.” Certainly Alan Moore broke much ground and attempted a lot of exciting things during this brief period (1983-89, to be exact) for DC, a stunning burst of creativity resulting in a body of work currently unmatched by any other living comics writer in its originality, complexity, sophistication and cultural impact. (Those Guy Fawkes masks worn by Anonymous have as much to do with V for Vendetta as they do with Guy Fawkes). In that time, Moore wrote over forty issues of the "creature-themed" horror comic Swamp Thing (complimented by the stellar artwork of Alfredo Alcala, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and Rick Veitch), V for Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke (with Brian Bolland) and Watchmen (with Dave Gibbons and John Higgins), a comic that holds the peculiar honor of being named one of Time magazine's best 100 novels since 1923 and Comics Bulletin's most overrated comic. Also during this time, Moore would produce a handful of fondly-remembered Superman and Green Lantern stories, and, more notably, for Warrior and later Eclipse Comics, revive Marvelman (retitled Miracleman for US audiences to avoid a lawsuit from the always litigious-prone Marvel), perhaps Moore's most thorough examination of the superhero (they are Gods, basically). Moore initially explored this idea in seed form in his re-envisioning Swamp Thing as something called an "elemental" and the portrayal of Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan as a quantum anomaly.

Swamp Thing painted by Steve Bissette

Indeed, with the exception of V for Vendetta, largely a scathing critique of Thatcherite Britain, each of these works are a redefinition of the concept of the superhero, a philosophical and cultural unpacking of the metaphysical implications of the genre. Paradoxically, DC, a company that publishes superhero comics, primarily, published these works, with the exception of Marvelman. This apparent contradiction, according to Eric Berlatsky, the editor of this welcome, career-spanning collection of interviews with this "iconoclastic, rebellious and free-thinking" comics genius, is emblematic of Moore's contradictory nature. Watchmen, for example, is, Berlatsky writes:

a superhero story about the dangers of heroism, a Cold War tale that also eerily predicts the events and aftermath of 9/11, a meditation on the philosophy of time that presents the reader with two seemingly exclusive temporalities, sequential and simultaneous . . . a series . . . originally published in the United States, takes place there, and comments on its status as a Cold War superpower, but is written and drawn by two Englishmen, created for one of the "big two" corporate comics companies, whose copyrighted characters and work-for-hire contracts often allow little room for creative freedom.

Dr Manhattan's dilemma

Moore's dislike of work-for-hire contracts, writes Berlatsky, came relatively late in his career. A younger Moore, after spending several years writing science fiction (Future Shock, Skizz), "feminist space opera" (The Ballad of Halo Jones), and sci-fi and horror humor strips (D.R. and Quinch and The Bojeffries Saga, respectively) for a number of UK magazines, became disappointed by the lack of financial success for his creator-owned work. For example, when writing V for Vendetta for the British magazine Warrior, Moore owned the rights, yet received little in the way of remuneration; as a result, he was willing to sell the property to DC in exchange for greater economic reward. That position would change not long after Vendetta's publication when Moore, disgusted by DC's questionable business practices (in particular for a proposed rating system and failure to compensate Moore and Gibbons for contractually obligated percentages on Watchmen merchandise; the company claimed they were "promotional" items), left the company, a departure that apparently paralleled his decision to stop writing superhero comics altogether. This later turned out not to be the case when, following a nearly decade-long foray into non-superhero comics, beginning with the Jack the Ripper story From Hell (with Eddie Campbell) and the pornographic Lost Girls (with Melinda Gebbie) (both serialized in Bissette's groundbreaking anthology Taboo), and his collaborations with artist Bill Sienkiewicz (the graphic novel Brought to Light and the abandoned Big Numbers), a graphic novel with Oscar Zarate (A Small Killing) and a novel (Voice of the Fire), Moore returned to writing superhero comics in the late 90s. These works included Supreme for Image, followed by his own Wildstorm imprint, America's Best Comics, which included the superhero-themed Tom Strong and Promethea.

During the decade of the 1990s, Moore continued to produce additional superhero work (an issue of Spawn here, a  WildC.A.T.S. mini-series there), yet none of it was really on par with the watershed comics he produced for DC and Eclipse during the previous decade. His Silver Age paeans Supreme and 1963 (collaborations with Chris Sprouse, Rick Veitch and Bissette, among others) are notable for their whimsy and knowing, tongue-in-cheek satires of the Mort Weisinger and Stan Lee eras of DC and Marvel, comics Moore cut his teeth reading, yet these are comparatively lightweight efforts. Arguably, From Hell stands as Moore's consummate achievement from this period, a work that, with Watchmen, manages to interweave most of Moore's various interests: in particular, the simultaneity of time, and the power of the human imagination.  Moreover, their villains, in From Hell the Royal Family's physician, in Watchmen the world's smartest man, are self-deceiving and delusional megalomaniacs who believe they are capable of saving humankind, yet in attempting to do so only lay waste innocent lives and transform the world for the worse. In that sense, they are the harbingers of our own accursed age of tyrants, warlords, jihadists and martyrs.

From Hell

The interviews collected here display Moore's wide-ranging and seemingly incongruent interests: from comic books to quantum physics, from psychogeography to "Idea Space," from music to magic (Moore now claims to be a practicing magician who worships the snake god Glycon, who was in fact a Roman hand puppet). Yet, as Berlatsky notes, these various interests are on display even in Moore's earliest work, with themes of magic explored in the pages of Swamp Thing, with its preference for DC's stable of occult characters, including the Spectre, Doctor Fate, the Phantom Stranger and the Demon. Moreover, Masonic occultism figures prominently in From Hell and, perhaps most significantly, the melding of all these various themes – superhero, occult, quantum physics – is explored in considerable length in Promethea, an extended foray into the meaning of time and existence, to the extent that its final volume might be more accurately entitled Moore's Metaphysics. Recent years have seem Moore concentrate on his spoken word efforts, which deal with similar ideas concerning history, magic, geography and science, and in his more "literary" pursuits, such as his ongoing (since 1999) collaboration with Kevin O'Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Conclusion of Promethea

The ten interviews included in this book span the years 1981 to 2009. The first, conducted by V for Vendetta artist David Lloyd, finds Moore near the start of his career and is, according to Berlatsky, Moore's first published interview. The 1983 interview with Garry Leach provides some interesting background to the genesis of their work for Warrior and a critique of Marvel Comics, particularly X-Men impresario Chris Claremont, whom Moore would soon supplant as the medium's most celebrated writer. A 1984 interview finds Moore at the start of his tenure on Swamp Thing, and provides an interesting and insightful career interview up to that point. The 1988 interview, originally published in David Kraft's Comics Interview, focuses on Watchmen and is among the most penetrating and in-depth interviews here. An example: "I suppose the central question of Watchmen is the question Dr. Manhattan asks of himself on Mars, which is, 'Who makes the world?' What I was trying to say in Watchmen is that we all make the world. It isn't the heroes and villains, the Dr. Manhattans and the Richard Nixons exclusively. It can just as easily be a pudgy, acne-ridden, mentally subnormal kid working for a right-wing newspaper." (My guess is that Zack Snyder failed to read this particular interview.)

That great conclusion to Watchmen

A 1998 interview, more conversational in tone as it is reproduced from the "unedited transcript," delves into Moore's view on film adaptations, and his views have grown considerably less patient since this interview was conducted (one assumes the result of having actually seen the results). Film adaptations of Moore's work range from the merely adequate (V for Vendetta), to the laughable (Watchmen, From Hell), to the atrocious (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). (Moore surely has the dubious honor of having so many stellar works transformed into cinematic train wrecks. Hollywood's Moore is, to this author, quite literally zero for four.) This interview is exceptional also for the range of its subject matter; Moore touches on everything from Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenic field theory and its relationship to Moore's Idea Space, the Qabbalah, secret societies, psychogeography, anarchy, occultism, madness and magic.

A 2001 feature from The Onion A.V. Club is a relatively brief interview focusing on From Hell, taking place around the time of the release of the film adaptation. (The interview holds the peculiar distinction of being more interesting than the feature film.) A 2002 interview focuses on Moore's work for America's Best Comics. Jess Nevins' 2004 interview, originally published in Nevins' book of annotations for Moore League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, naturally focuses on that work, while the 2006 interview discusses Moore and Gebbie's pornographic Lost Girls, specifically Moore's view of pornography as, like comics, a legitimate literary genre long viewed as lacking cultural legitimacy as a result of its association with exploitative subgenres. The volume concludes with an appropriately career-spanning 2009 interview, focusing mostly on LOEG but also touching on other projects, such as Moore's long-delayed novel Jerusalem, which promises to explore in even greater detail themes familiar to most of Moore's work.

Alan Moore's Lost Girls

Altogether, Alan Moore: Conversations is a useful compendium of all things Moore, a handy resource for a more thorough understanding of Moore's idiosyncratic and expansive interests, recommended for both the hard-core Moore fans and initiates alike. 

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