Originally published in Strange Things Are Happening, vol. 1, no. 2, May/June 1988. Note: “Vincent Eno” was Richard Norris, later one half of dance/ambient outfit The Grid with Dave Ball. See also the Watchmen round table discussion on this site.
Vincent Eno and El Csawza meet
comics megastar ALAN MOORE
Amidst smouldering heaps of superlatives flung in the direction of the comic genre of late, one name stands head and shoulders above the crowd: ALAN MOORE. But don’t just trust the gushing blurbs on the back of Moore’s works (‘Alan Moore has reinvented the comic book genre’ and so on), take it from your pals at Strange Things – Alan Moore is beezer!
With Watchmen the comic book format legitimately became what the media manipulators were attempting to tell us all about – the graphic novel. Watchmen is a work to be read and re-read, loved and cherished. Poetry, Cinema, narrative, music… they’re all here. The advent of such a work is as exciting in literary terms as the publication of the earliest novels, and you’d better believe it. Because within the next two years, the work of Alan Moore and his contemporaries is going to eclipse Watchmen and zoom into overdrive. As Alan says, ‘the next two years are going to be good for comics.’ Some understatement.
Turning into the first true comic megastar wasn’t an easy ride for Alan.
‘After school I did a variety of awful horrifying jobs,’ he recalls. ‘They look great on the dust jacket of your first novel, but were shit to actually live through! I started off by working at the skin division of the local Co-operative society. We’d go to work at seven thirty in the morning, drag these blood-sodden sheepskins out of vats of cold water and urine, chop off extraneous testicles or hooves and throw them at each other in this concentration camp gaiety we’d established to cope with the grimness of our surroundings. People there were splattered with this chemical for removing wool from hide, these blue marks all over them.
‘Then I climbed up the social ladder and became a toilet cleaner for a hotel. After that I went through a number of grindingly tedious office jobs; finally I had to make the jump into writing because we’d got a kid on the way and if I’d waited until after the baby was born I’d never have had the nerve. I decided that life being as short as it is, and as far as I know us getting only one crack at it, it just seemed important that I shouldn’t spend any of it doing something I didn’t want to do.’
So from scribbling as a Sounds cartoonist under the pen name Curt Vile and penning Maxwell the Magic Cat for his local newspaper, Alan got his teeth into Future Shocks for 2000 AD and a series of contributions for Dr. Who Weekly. Then along came Marvelman, V For Vendetta, Swamp Thing (with Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala) and Halo Jones. But it was with his collaboration with Dave Gibbons, the mighty Watchmen, that Alan’s status reached stellar proportions. Here Moore aimed optimistically high, attempting to create ‘a superhero Moby Dick; something that had that sort of weight, that sort of density.’ Quite some proposition you’d think, but Alan likes a good challenge:
‘Obviously I’m taking big risks, like being a white heterosexual writer writing about gay people, black people and women. It would be really arrogant to claim that by writing about women I know what it’s like to be one, but you have to at least think about them more – you have to try and think your way inside them and that can only be a good thing – it gives you an appreciation of the other person’s opinion, even if you’ve only imagined it very clumsily.’
But how do you get into the frame of mind to write such portrayals?
‘I try to approach character writing as an actor would. They’re perhaps not very formed to start with but they slowly congeal… I didn’t know Rorschach was going to die at the end of Watchmen until issue four – that was the only major detail that I hadn’t sorted out right from the beginning. As I thought about it, I realised there was no way that he would compromise, and if he wasn’t going to compromise then he was going to die! When I got into the Rorschach issue I knew a lot about the character’s surface mannerisms, but I didn’t know what was inside him until I started to dig.’
And what about the characterisation of the more, um, extra-terrestrial beings present? How can you even begin to conjure up a being like Dr. Manhattan?
‘With Dr. Manhattan we were thinking about the implications of a nuclear superhero’, explains Alan. ‘All the nuclear superheroes that existed in comics previously have been ones who, by the great gift of radioactivity, suddenly find themselves not with leukaemia or some form of tumour, but with miraculous powers. Other than shooting bolts out of their hands willy-nilly, there were never any of the implications of nuclear science and particularly quantum science – they’re not considered. We’re now forty years post-Einstein and it’s time we tried to confront some of the things Einstein said. On a quantum level, as I understand it, reality does not work! Things can be in two places at once; they can move from point A to point B without passing through the distance that separates those points… and this is what Dr. Manhattan does. Time, in a post-Einsteinian universe, cannot be regarded in the same way: from what Einstein says, it is possible that the future and past must exist now, for what “now” means. Someone existing in a quantum universe would not see time broken up in the linear way we see it. We tried to think what it would be like to somebody to whom the theory of relativity was what he had for breakfast, more or less… if you could see that different aspect of things then it would change you. You would not be able to feel the same way about the importance of human affairs. I didn’t want to do a Mr. Spock, I didn’t want to do somebody who was just emotionless – he has got emotions of a sort he’s growing away from them. He has girlfriends; I should imagine that’s just human habit. But at the end of Watchmen he decides he’s just going to go into space, forever. Perhaps he’ll make some people, but basically he doesn’t want anything more to do with humans… in a lifespan that may span billennia he’s only gone a couple of steps. He’s growing away from humanity gradually. It’s not a cold unemotional thing, it’s just different; a different way of seeing the universe.
‘Which is part of what Watchmen is about. We tried to set up four or five radically opposing ways of seeing the world and let the readers figure it out for themselves; let them make a moral decision for once in their miserable lives! Too many writers go for that “baby bird” moralising, where your audience just sits there with their beaks open and you just cram regurgitated morals down their throat. Heroes don’t work that way anymore… although I think Frank Miller would disagree with me on that. What we wanted to do was show all of these people, warts and all. Show that even the worst of them had something going for them, and even the best of them had their flaws.’
Influential in the formation of this approach to the moral nature of Alan’s characters was the work of William Burroughs.
‘I’d say Burroughs is one of my main influences’, he says. ‘Not the cut-up stuff, but his thinking about the way that the word and the image are used to control, and their possible more subversive effect. I’m surprised Burroughs didn’t do more comic strips himself. To the best of my knowledge he’s only done one, for a magazine called Cyclops, a British underground magazine that came out in 1969. It only lasted four issues; Burroughs and I believe an artist called Malcolm MacNeill did a strip called The Unspeakable Mr.Hart. I always thought that comics would be a perfect medium for Burroughs. With Watchmen I was trying to put some of his ideas into practice; the idea of repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning. You could almost play them like music. You’d have these things like musical themes that would occur throughout the work.’
In a similar fashion, Watchmen is brimming with a cinematic vision which, in the right hands, could translate to the big screen. With the success of Robocop and the forthcoming release of Judge Dredd, 20th Century Fox have optioned Watchmen for a future film project. Alan’s feelings about this are mixed:
‘The screenplay is being written by Sam Ham… he’s a good writer, but if they do make the film there’s no way of guaranteeing it will be good. If it ever comes out there’ll be a shit load of merchandise; watches, badges, Rorschach Action Men – wind them up and they’ll break all the fingers on your Transformers! Dr. Manhattan dolls that give you cancer… ‘
Another film project on the cards is Alan’s screenplay for Malcolm McLaren’s Fashion Beast. What was McLaren like to work with?
‘A good laugh… I found him a really interesting and amusing guy who’s got a shitload of incredibly wild ideas. I’m never sure whether they are brilliant ideas or whether his genius is in making everybody else believe them to be brilliant ideas. He gets results.’
So what kind of tomfoolery is Fashion Beast?
‘It’s loosely based upon the life of Christian Dior, mixed with the fable of Beauty and the Beast. Dior was an unusual character who lived a very strange life.’
Did the restrictions of scriptwriting hinder your creativity?
‘I was trying to please everybody with that script: Malcolm wanted the film to have the depth of Chinatown mixed with the vitality of Flashdance… I don’t know if it will ever get made. The last I heard they were casting. I don’t know whether I did a very good job.’
But surely movies and comics could be the perfect match? Alan isn’t so sure:
‘The relationship between films and comics has been overemphasised to a degree. If you understand cinematic techniques then you’ll be able to write better, more gripping comics than someone who doesn’t, but if cinematic technique is seen as the be all and end all of what comics can aspire to, then at the very best comics are always going to be a poor relation to the cinema. What I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating. Like in Watchmen, all that subliminal shit we were getting into the backgrounds. You are trapped in the running time of a film – you go in, you sit down, they’ve got two hours and you’re dragged through at their pace. With a comic you can stare at the page for as long as you want and check back to see if this line of dialogue really does echo something four pages earlier, whether this picture is really the same as that one, and wonder if there is some connection there.
‘Watchmen was designed to be read four or five times; there’s stuff in there Dave had put in that even I only noticed on the sixth or seventh read. And there are things that turned up in there by accident… the little plugs on the spark hydrants, if you turn them upside down, you discover a little smiley face. Watchmen was a stream of weird shit and coincidence from beginning to end. Bizarre things kept hitting us in the face and they were perfect for us. Like looking through NASA photos of Mars and finding a smiley face up there.’
Ah yes, the smiley face. Hijacked by Bomb The Bass and destined to adorn a million bootleg T-Shirts this summer, this charming early seventies throwback stares out at you throughout the Watchmen saga.
Where did it originate, Alan?
‘From behavioural psychology tests. They tried to find the simplest abstraction that would make a baby smile. Eventually they got it down to a circle, two dots and a little arc. In some ways that’s a symbol of complete innocence. Putting a blood splash over the eye changes its meaning… it made a pretty good image for a first issue cover. It was Dave’s idea…, we fucked around with ideas for the covers; we knew we wanted to do something radical, but it was Dave who said we should have real close ups, make them so tight, just one tiny detail… and not have anything human on any of them at all. That was perfect.’
What wasn’t so perfect was the comic industry. Although Alan received praise for Watchmen, somehow, in grand comic industry tradition, he was being taken to the proverbial cleaners.
‘We got eight per cent between us for Watchmen. That eight per cent bought this house, the car, the worthless broken-down CD player in the corner and all the rest of it. For a while you’re dazzled by this shower of money you find yourself in… you think ‘this is wonderful, I’ve got more money than I’ve ever had in my life! What kind people they are to give us all these royalty cheques.’ And then you think hang on, eight per cent from a hundred per cent leaves ninety two per cent. And that, as far as we can see, DC have taken as payment for editing mistakes into Watchmen and getting it to the printer on time. In one instance they cut up balloons, leaving a word out so it no longer makes any sense. I don’t want to get into an embittered rant, but we’re barely getting anything from the merchandising. What we do get is a fraction.’
Not only that, but the comic giants attempted to introduce a rating system which would practically enforce censorship on the genre. Alan and Frank Miller told them where to go… and when DC’s two biggest writers, responsible for half of the company’s income, say ‘No’, the big white chiefs take notice. So you could say Alan wasn’t too happy about his position.
‘I’ve been content to work under those conditions for years – because those are the conditions that prevail and you have to go with them to get into the industry. I’ve now broken through to the real world of publishing and I can now see what it is I’ve been swimming through for the past five or six years. It certainly isn’t lavender water.’
And now Alan’s obligations to the major comics barons are complete, with the forthcoming V For Vendetta and Marvelman publications, he’s set up his own publishing company with his closest allies. Here he can tackle those subjects closest to his heart. Such as Clause 28, the frighteningly repressive bill concerning the supposed ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local councils.
‘The big chill is coming down for sure,’ says Alan. ‘All that bad science fiction and all those paranoid hippy prophesies about the way the country was going… as it turns out they were true! Outside my door the other day was one of those ‘Dark Riders Of Mordor’ policemen those with the visor and the cloak the horse wears a visor too. One of these horses was shouldering a couple of kids up against the garage door. Just football fans on the way down to the match. We ran outside to get a photo of it and one of those vans with the rotating video cameras came by. The police stated in the paper ‘We are looking forward to this match so we can try out our new crowd control methods.’ It was obvious looking at it that it wasn’t designed just to handle football fans. You don’t put that much money into stopping trouble erupting at games between Northampton and Sunderland! Sure enough, two weeks later at the Clause 28 rally the police had them out again. They turned up and arrested girls for kissing and for holding placards, saying they were offensive weapons.’
Not a big fan of the police then?
‘The police in this country are out of control. In my untrained opinion James Anderton is psychotic… he is talking to God! Of course God talks to me quite often, he goes for people with beards – me, James Anderton, Peter Sutcliffe, Charles Manson, Ayatollah Khomeni… it’s like one of those chat lines where people can talk together. We often get into conversations, me and Jim, the Ayatollah, Charlie and Peter… The guy is tolerated! This is the guy who in ?79 was meeting in secret with the leader of the National Front. He’s also the guy who in 1980 said that he thought the role of the police in the eighties was less to do with the prevention of crime and more to do with the prevention of political offences. The police force are a law unto themselves.
‘At the moment, it seems to me that the gays are the first group to get it in a big way – Clause 28. Ostensibly it is to stop books that treat homosexuality as acceptable from being available in schools – but gay pubs, gay clubs, gay switchboards are all licensed by the council. They will not be allowed to fund any of those. That’s what it’s really about: everything will be wiped out overnight. And protest marches, they’re granted by local authorities it’s frightening. It’s all based upon prejudice and gibberish. They still think of AIDS as ‘the gay plague’ – they are going to find out about that soon enough. Anderton has said homosexuality should be a crime and that ‘they are swimming around in a cesspit of their own filth’ and Margaret Thatcher has sanctioned him. The Labour party have voted with the Conservatives on this bill because they’re scared of appearing in The Sun as a ‘poofters’ party. It’s the ‘queers’ today, the niggers’ tomorrow; she’s had one or two good goes at the Trade Unions and then of course there’s the poor. Always the poor. It worries the shit out of me.’
But Alan doesn’t just worry about these outrageous affronts – here’s an artist who’s taking positive steps to do something about it. His newly-formed publishing company, Mad Love Publishing, is taking it’s first steps towards confronting the issue. Mad Love will publish AARGH! which stands for Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia and will bring together a stunning list of comic talent to comment on the deplorable clause. Anyone who is anyone in the comic world is involved – Alan, Dave Sim, Rick Veitch, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegleman. Hunt Emerson, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez… the list goes on. Titan are distributing the work for nothing, and all money will go to OLGA, the anti-clause group. Positive!
Another Mad Love project is set to be Alan’s true follow up to Watchmen. Forget all the hype about The Killing Joke, just wait until The Mandlebrot Set is unleashed. A forthcoming twelve-issue series dealing with ‘shopping malls, mathematics, history and skateboards’, The Mandlebrot Set starts from the premise that nothing is more fantastic than real life. Jumping from the 11th century to the 1940s, this work will astound us all. Alan’s already written a 21-page synopsis that doesn’t even mention the characters or plot! The work is a collaboration with Wild Bill Sienkeiwicz and is fairly shopping-orientated. Let’s go shopping!
‘Roughly, the situation is this; you’ve got a small English community, somewhere like Corby, somewhere where there used to be industry and has now been gutted. There’s a small patch of land that has been earmarked for nursing homes or a child care centre, but some American business people step in and say ‘We would like to build the first American-style shopping mall in the British Isles.’ It’ll be great for the locals because they’ll all have lots of work and so, in the spirit of free enterprise, it is done. The whole book is going to be about nothing more exciting than the building and accomplishment of the shopping mall – but the shopping mall is such a powerful symbol of the shit that is coming down.’
Also on the cards is possibly the most important work, in political and global terms, that Alan’s undertaken yet. Brought To Light, a joint project between Alan and Bill alongside Joyce Brabner (Real War Stories) and Tom Yeats, is going to blow the roof off American political culture for years to come. No joke. It’s a work that has been commissioned by the voluntary American pressure group The Christic Institute, a forceful body of people based in Washington who are sussed enough to realise the power of the comic medium. The Institute has initiated many triumphant political investigations in the past – from bringing damages against the Ku Klux Klan after the Greensburg shootings to exposing the Contra link six months before the rest of the world got hold of it. But this undertaking is bigger than all that – Oliver North and chums are just the tip of the iceberg. Brought To Light (subtitled ‘Flashpoint and Shadowplay’) is to be published by Eclipse and Warner Books; Joyce and Tom handle the ‘Flashpoint’ section, whilst Alan and Bill sink their teeth into ‘Shadowplay’: the true history of the CIA and a Palestinian/CIA linked group called ‘The Secret Team’. From Cuba to Miami, through fixed Australian elections, CIA funding in Central America and New York cocaine rackets, this work will cause ripples so big they’d be a surfers paradise. I’m not saying anything more, neither’s Alan, but, as he says, the next couple of years are looking good for comics…….