Aug 25, 2012

AM Portrait: the interview

The Birth Caul CD cover
From Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman, page 107-117.
Interview conducted by Omar Martini on 09/09/2002. Originally translated in Italian and published in 2002 in Alan Moore: biografia, testi, fotografie.
Transcribed for the Portrait by Gary Spencer Millidge.
Posted on this blog with the author's permission.


Omar Martini: I’d like to ask you some questions about your performances and your thoughts in general on history, not simply on comic books. Since here in Italy few people have written about this particular area of your work, I’d like to ask why you chose to start with those particular readings, those performances – The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, The Birth Caul - that is, what kind of subjects do you choose and how do you work on them?
Alan Moore: Okay. In my teenage years, I was a member of the Northampton Arts Lab, which was an experimental art organization that was popular in England during the ‘60s. While working with the Arts Lab I did performances, I did poetry readings, I performed sketches, I wrote some songs and performed them, so basically there’s always been an element of performance in what I like to do. However, it was in the 1993-94 that I decided to become a magician.

Yes. I read about it.
Sure. What that meant was I intended to find out what Magic was and practice it. One of these first impulses that came to me when I decided to practice magic was the familiar impulse (for me) of trying to turn it in something creative. So along with my musical partners David J (of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets) and Tim Perkins (a brilliant local musician), we put together a kind of collage of different things. There were some songs that had already been written but that seemed appropriate, there were some new pieces that we composed on the spot. We kind of put all these things together and this coincided with the performance that Blast Furnace Records and Iain Sinclair the writer were putting on at the Bridewell Theatre. We did a performance there, really enjoyed it. The whole idea for the format, the idea for the work… had all arisen out of thin air. One part of it was that we were actually talking about the building where the performance was taking place, we were talking about the surrounding environment, the surrounding area of London. This seemed to give the work a power and immediacy, in that the audience found themselves listening to a work that was talking about the place they were sitting in and was talking about the night they were sitting there. It became quite intense and personal. So we decided to carry this on, the next performance we did was… I stress that these are one-off performances, we never repeat them. I didn’t really like the standard rock’n’roll idea of…

Of repeating…
You write your album, you then go out and do gigs on the road, playing the same songs every night. You hope that somewhere along the line you’re going to have enough time to write songs for your next album. It didn’t seem like that was much fun to me. So what we decided to do was, we do these things, put an immense amount of work into them, and only perform them once, with the idea that we could produce a CD that would bring them out in a more permanent form. The next thing we did was for a Newcastle Arts Organization. They wanted us to go there and perform for them. That was the piece that turned into The Birth Caul. Again, it was probably more polished than the first piece, we got a little bit more of an idea of what we were doing, but it was still a very powerful and resonant piece, it was a good performance. I was very pleased with that.
Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore. Back-cover of The Birth Caul comics adaptation.
I saw some photos and I also read and translated Eddie Campbell’s adaptation of The Birth Caul. I found it really interesting and the particular thing was that at every reading I found some pieces… I understood something more than on each previous reading.
Well, all the pieces that we do we try to make them very dense, they generally deal with large subjects and we’ve got generally about an hour to do them all, without them seeming rushed, and then they’ve got a kind of structure to them so that they would build nicely in the audience’s mind and consequently we’ve got to get immense amount of detail into these things. I think that actually at the performances they can be a little overwhelming. The audience can’t possibly… by the time they’ve paused to fully appreciate one line, they’ve missed the next two. But that’s fine. I quite like the idea of overwhelming the audience’s normal critical faculties.
You have this densely written language in one stream, then you’ve got very complex music in one other stream, you’ve got theatrics, maybe a fire breather… you’ve got synchronised psychedelic film collage… this sort of multimedia approach again, goes very much back to my Arts Lab days. I’m starting to appreciate it more because it almost… when the mind of the audience is taking in more information every second than it can handle, the effect of all these things become something like… perhaps psychedelic drugs, a kind of fugue state, where there are too many vectors of information occurring at once. So the mind tends just to give up and be carried along by the flow. Even if they’re not taking in the meaning of every word, every sentence, I think that they are certainly soaking up all of the emotion and the general feeling of the thing. So I’m not too worried if they can’t get it all at the first hearing.
We did The Birth Caul, and then we were offered a performance at the Highbury Garage, which again I decided that we would do as a “site specific” performance, it would be about Highbury. I have kind of adopted the belief that anywhere you could find an enough interesting stories to make a performance if you dig deep enough. However, when we first looked at Highbury, it seemed that there wasn’t anything there at all that was of any interest. So we started to dig a bit harder... and eventually the theory was vindicated.

Do you choose the subject according to the place or do you have something specific in mind before you decided to start writing for a new performance?  
Well, in this case it was simply that Chris Brook who I’d met during my association with the K Foundation - the KLF, as they used to be called - Chris had got a series of nights in Highbury, so it was the fact that we were offered this performance in Highbury that told us what the event was about. Then we let the information that we unearthed shape the final performance. The unique character of any area is something that you can only reveal by this kind of excavation.
It’s like… as an example, the piece that we did after Highbury, a year or something later, maybe two years later, was the Red Lion Square performance Snakes & Ladders, which Eddie Campbell has done an adaptation of and the album will be put from RE: Records, same as the other two albums… but with that we were talking about Holborn, which is an area of North London, which isn’t very far away from Highbury, another area of North London. But the kind of historical events and characters that are associated with the two areas are completely different, and that tends to give a different flavour to each of the environments. Highbury turned out to have a lot of stories that revolved around drugs, around phantasmagoria, freak shows, it had a more hallucinatory atmosphere, there was something freakish, something sexual… a lot of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” over the centuries at Highbury. Whereas with Holborn and the Red Lion Square performance we found something that was perhaps less flashy, but more profound. We found a lot of resurrections, we found some genuine visions, some redeeming visions, things like that. It’s purely the area itself that we tried to allow to tell its own story and to reveal its own unique character.
So, with say, The Birth Caul, how we arrived at the idea for that one … because, there was a part of The Birth Caul which was talking about the area of Newcastle in which we performed it, but what The Birth Caul was mostly about came from me, David J and Tim Perkins: we did a magic ritual. The purpose of the ritual was to try and find out exactly what we should do next in terms of performance. What came out of the ritual was 3 to 4 hours of inspired enthusiastic talk about our childhood. Now, we figured out from that, whatever our next performance was about, it was going to have a large part of it that was talking about our childhood, infancy, teenage years.
When the Arts Foundation that was putting on The Birth Caul asked us what kind of venue we would like to do the performance at, we told them that our preference was to perhaps do it at a disused school or somewhere that seemed to have some relevance to the childhood theme. Now, they couldn’t find a school, they found us a Victorian Court Room, which was a magnificent building, a lovely place to do a performance. We were a bit disappointed because it didn’t seem to have any relationship to this childhood theme, but we decided to do it there anyway because it felt right. Now, the performance was in November; by the August of that year we still hadn’t got any more than that initial idea, of something to do with childhood. It was during that August that my mother died and while looking through her effects, we found this piece of blue bandage wrapping, with this membrane stuck to it that had originally belonged to my grandmother and which had been passed down and which we recognized as a birth caul. There was something so powerful and talismanic about this object, it seemed to me to be almost… almost talking about birth, the pre-uterine state, it seemed to be talking about the womb, childhood, it seemed to be a kind of inspirational thing, around which we could compose this story of life and death, of childhood and birth, and… all of these other areas that we could talk about. So that’s how The Birth Caul came to be the piece of work that it was. It was only after we had done the performance that we found out that birth cauls are mentioned on the first pages of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, when they try to sell David Copperfield’s birth caul and the person who buys it is not a fisherman - they traditionally prize birth cauls very highly - but the person who buys David Copperfield’s birth caul is a barrister, or a lawyer. It turns out that barristers and lawyers also prize birth cauls as, apparently, they had worn birth cauls upon their heads to denote wisdom. Which is presumably the origin of the barrister’s wig. So it turned out that by performing it at the Court we’d done in the perfect place…

It makes sense…
It all made perfect sense. This is the way most of these things come together. If they’re meant to happen then they generally… if you can just kind of work without purpose, you have to kind of float in a way, to just drift generally towards your goal without having much idea of direction or control. If you can gather the nerve to do that, then you generally find that everything turns out perfectly, you know? I think that’s answered your question.
Cover by Eddie Campbell for Snakes & Ladders comics adaptation.
Yes, I think so. I would like to stick more with your performances. I read also in some works and also in the text that you wrote for the Locus+ website that you usually work for a couple of weeks to a month to write the performances before you perform them. But during this period, do you usually write some other works or do you usually work only on this performance? Do you have some sort of schedule or does this kind of writing absorb you completely?
Well, what I have to do is, if I have deadlines with my regular work, then I have to get them out of the way first. What generally happened with the CDs so far is that it’s taken about two weeks to compose and record and produce the music. It also takes about two weeks to write all the words. That said, it might be that if I’ve got, say, to get another four to six pages of Promethea to J. H. Williams III during that week, then I will perhaps write four pages of Promethea in one morning, type them up, spend the rest of that afternoon/evening working on the performance piece; the next day perhaps doing another couple of pages of Promethea in the morning… I mean, I like it to be as continuous as possible, and with the Blake piece that we did, that was very absorbing. I was very conscious that I wanted to do something that would be worthy of William Blake, not to do something that was as good as William Blake but to do something that would not be an insult to William Blake. So I was feeling kind of pressured. I felt that I’d got this Eighteenth/Nineteenth Century ghost standing behind my shoulder, and if I wrote a phrase that was too dull, I would kind almost hear him tutting or sighing; if I wrote a phrase that was too elaborate, I’d hear the same thing. They were very demanding, I tried to make them my very best writing. It’s like… they have to be intense because they’re going into just a single hour where you’ve got one chance to get it right and so I put a great deal of work into all the pieces, with that in mind.

How do you collaborate with David J and Tim Perkins, your musicians? Did you first write down everything and then you talk with them or…
What happens tends to vary… with the first album, the Bridewell performance, there were a couple of songs that had already been written, one of them I had written the lyrics first, then David J put the music to those lyrics, another one where me and Tim Perkins… I think there were two songs, where me and Tim Perkins just sat down and he had been playing me the song as he worked it out, and I was working on the lyrics more or less at the same time. Now, what generally tends to happen - at least these days - remember that David J is out of the picture, Dave has been over in America for some years so he’s not really been in the loop - but these days, when Tim and me work together, what I generally prefer to do is to give Tim an idea of the overall structure of the piece. Like with the Blake thing, I said Okay, there’s going to be four sections: the first one will do with his early life, and that would be Innocence. Then we’ll deal with the turmoil of his middle life - that would be Hell. We’ll then do something about his later years, when he was an old man, that would be Experience; then, we would do the final section, which would be jubilant, psychedelic and we’ll be talking about William Blake as kind of spirit coursing through history, that would be Heaven. Tim suggested that we also had an overture, so he could give more musical structure to the piece - I’ve got no problem with that - so then Tim started to work upon the four main musical pieces, with me sometimes putting in suggestions, some of which he would take notice of, some of which he wouldn’t. Then, when he got the music finished, I wrote the words around the music, which I do by sitting down with a tape recorder and a stopwatch. I go through, say, the first ten minute track, making scribbled notes, that the first ten seconds have got a ghostly twinkling atmosphere, and then after ten seconds French horns come in and there’s fifteen seconds before jangly guitars come in, and then twenty seconds before there’s some other change in the music, and then I’ll go through… get the general impression of what the music sounds like. Let that influence how I write the words and I also write them in verses of ten/fifteen/twenty seconds. Or however long that it takes me to say them. So that I would be able to read them along with the music and it would be all completely synchronised, which is a bit hair-raising when you’re doing it live: you have to count in your head, you know, you reach a certain point in the music and you think “right, now I’ve got to count to twenty before I start to talk again”.
But it is very effective, very powerful because it sounds… I think it’s a bit like circus horses. People tend to think that the horses are dancing to the music, but in fact they’re not. The orchestra is playing along to the movements of the horses, which it makes look like the horses are dancing. That’s something like what I do… Tim creates that in whatever style he fancies and then I have to put the words in and around the music. So that it sounds as if the words were written first and the music was written afterwards, whereas in fact it’s the other way round. We just get a really perfect synchronization sometimes. I don’t think it would be possible were we writing the words first because if I were writing the words first they would tend to have quite predictable, rhythms and rhyme schemes, it would limit Tim too much in terms of what he could do with the music. If he does the music first he has no limitations and then I’ve got the challenge of fitting in the right words around the musical structure that he’s given me.

It sounds really interesting, but also a little complicated.
It’s quite scientific! [laughs]

It’s very mathematic.
Yes, we have to be very precise. All right, sometimes it doesn’t end up being quite as precise as we hoped, but it’s generally pretty tight. The way the film and the dance and the fire breathing and everything kind of synchronises in within it. That also works very nicely.

But are the CDs a recording of the performances or are you doing them in a studio?
One of them. But all of the performances have taped music to which I do a reading. Now, it’s a bit like… now I don’t know if you’ve seen the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive…

They say: “Hay no banda”… there is no band. The only CD that is actually performed live is The Birth Caul. The Birth Caul because Charrm Records had got the recording equipment: they had it all set up so that we could record that live. So when you listen to The Birth Caul, that is absolutely as it was performed on the night… there’s no special effects added or anything like that, you hear it exactly as it was on that night. All the other ones, because we did not have the facilities to recording or the recording turned out to be unusable… what we did was, we took the music that we used in our backing tape and I simply put a new vocal over the top; did a second reading and put that down. So the only truly live one is The Birth Caul.

So in some ways the other ones are live and in some ways they aren’t.
Yes, that’s it. They’re a recreation of the live performance: we use the same music, the same tapes and I do the same reading over the top, so it’s a recreation of the live performance.
Angel Passage CD cover by John Coulthart
Are you planning a new performance or are you just too busy with your other commitment?
Taking a break at the moment… but as far as The Moon & Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels goes, we kind of got the feeling that… there’s been a kind of progression over the four or five albums that we’ve done so far: the first one - because we did not know what we were doing – is perhaps the most incoherent. I was talking about Magic when I hadn’t got the faintest idea what I was talking about. It’s the roughest of the lot because we were inventing form as we went along. In the subsequent performances we became more and more confident and they became more and more polished. This culminated in The Angel Passage, the William Blake performance. Now, that is the most polished complex thing, either musically or lyrically that we have ever done. It also doesn’t really have a fraction of the same eerie power that the first recording had, when we made less sense, when we were less polished and less aware of what we were doing, we produced more powerful material, more genuinely magical material. So what we want to do is… me and Tim will chill out for a while, kick back, finish a couple of projects and have a rethink; go back to our initial roots, where we haven’t got any idea of what we were doing, we haven’t got any idea there’s going to be a CD, when we haven’t got any idea that it would be performed anywhere: we were just doing it because it felt that it was the thing to do. We want to try to get back to that naive state, then take it from there. So, there’s probably going to be quite a pause while we strip away a lot of the sophistications that we’ve built up over this past, what, nearly ten years.

I would like to talk with you about two other subjects. The first one is History. One can certainly notice that you’re interested in history and it comes out in many of your works. For example, as you said The Birth Caul is your history, but also kind of Great Britain’s history and the Universe’s history; Voice of the Fire is Northampton’s history, with also some piece of contemporaries history in the sequence with the TV news, and “The First American” sometimes is some kind of history of the media; Supreme, of course, is some sort of recap of Superman’s history. So it seems that you have a strong interest in history: it’s like as if by your retelling you may change it a little bit and maybe to have something better. Is it correct? Why is history so present and so strong in your work?
Well, I try to see things in four dimensions. I feel that if we regard Time as a fourth dimension, then in order to have any sense of what we as individuals mean, what our lives mean, we really have to know where those lives came from, how we got to this current position, whether as personally or in terms of cultures, nations, you know, entire histories running back to the Palaeolithic. All these things seem fascinating to me, also the information that is buried in history… it’s like seams of gold, that are still valuable, are still useful and are there for anybody who has the patience to do a little bit of digging.
For example, there is a big historical part in most of the CDs, so… now, the way I regard that is… I believe that to a certain extent we are creatures of our environment, I think that our environment reflects us and I think that we come to reflect our environment. Now, if you are living in a squalid tower block, if you are living in a shit heap, eventually you’ll probably come to the conclusion - at least subconsciously - that you are shit. If you are living in a rattrap, you’ll think you’re probably a rat, and you’ll probably modify your behaviour accordingly. Now, me, I live in a terraced house in Northampton which has got stars all over the ceiling, strange idols, stained glass: it looks pretty mad but it also… it looks a little bit like a temple. Now if you’re living in a temple you’ll perhaps get the idea after a while that you’re some sort of [laughter] of divinity, or high priest or something, which might be delusional, but it feels a lot better than thinking you’re a rat. I think that if I had to walk down the grey fairly miserable streets of Northampton everyday of my life, or London, if I have to be visiting London, as I shall be this Friday… a walk down one of those streets can be an entirely negative experience. You can notice nothing but the litter, the ugly graffiti, the urban decay. However, if you happen to know something about the history of that street - it can be personal history, something you did there when you were a twenty year old, when you were teenager, when you were a child - or family history, this is were your auntie lived back in the ‘30s, or the little gems of genuine local history…
I mean, where I’m sitting in this perfectly ordinary street, as I pointed out, I think, in Voice of the Fire, that just down the road there’s the church where Francis Crick, who discovered DNA, went to Sunday School, next door to that is the cricket ground, where Samuel Beckett, the author of Waiting for Godot, he played cricket against Northampton. I can imagine this very Samuel Beckett cricket match, you know, where you have two old fielders, at the edges, saying, “Well, shall we… shall we go back to the Pavilion?” and the other one says “Yes.” And then neither of one would move. He was up in Northampton quite a bit because he was come to visit Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’ daughter, who was in the mental asylum, next door to where I used go to school. Same mental asylum John Clare died in, the Northampton poet, one of the best nature poets in the English language. Also a Jack the Ripper suspect, J. K. Steven, died there. Michael Jackson, Dusty Springfield, various celebrities were stopped in there to recuperate at various points.
Knowing all these things means that even the most dull and ordinary little streets suddenly can take on a wealth of meaning. A journey down Market Street can have your head buzzing with lively information. It’s a completely different experience to walking down the same street when you don’t know anything about it. I think that if we are to value the present and to really get as much as we can out of each present moment, it would help if we understood how this moment has arisen, if we understood the past, if we understood how incredibly rich and savage and beautiful our history can be. There is information like old things in the past and if we can unearth them I think we can use them to enrich our present existence.

So the presence of history in your work is some kind of looking back to see why we have reached this state and also to impart information.
Yeah. The whole of From Hell, in some senses, was… it seemed to me that looking at most of the technological or political or artistic or literary advances of the Twentieth Century, most of them could be traced back to the 1880s. Most of them, like France invading Indochina in the 1880s which lead to the Vietnam war… the Michelson-Morley experiments would lead, of course, to Einstein and the atom bomb, you know? What struck me was that if the 1880s were the Twentieth Century in miniature, then maybe the Jack the Ripper murders were the absolute fulcrum of the 1880s. So, this is were I came up with the concept for From Hell, where we actually have the final murder - William Gull is more or less acting as a midwife in the gory birth of the Twentieth Century. It was trying get people to see the connectiveness of things, to see the shapes that exist in history, the things that link events, sometimes coincidences, sometimes sort of threads of meaning. But I think that people could kind of see things from that perspective, they just have a much richer experience of life. 
Voice of the fire.
Very interesting! The other subject I’d like to talk about - in part you have already answered- is why you chose Northampton as the stage for most of your works, for example Big Numbers, Voice of the Fire and, in some way, The Birth Caul as well. Has Northampton a specific meaning for you or is it simply because it’s your city, the place where you live and that you know the best?
Perhaps all of those are true. I was born in Northampton, I believe that my family for the last several generations have originated in Northampton, may indeed, have always lived in Northampton. Despite the fact that Northampton is by no means a pretty or a beautiful town, it’s a town that I feel a deep emotional connection to. It is the centre of MY universe… however, because I am a reasonably clever writer, I can probably make a case by saying that actually Northampton is the centre of THE universe. Practically, anything of any importance that could ever happen [laughs] generally kind of comes out of Northampton in some peculiar way, like… America, for example: George Washington’s grandparents, Benjamin Franklin’s great-grandparents emigrated from Ecton and Seagrave in Northamptonshire after the English Civil War and went to America. The village crest of Barton Seagrave in Northamptonshire is bars and motes, which is the heraldic name for stars and stripes. So, the American flag… yeah, that’s probably based upon an obscure Northampton heritage crest. So, we’ve got DNA being sorted out at the Sunday school just down the road… Saint Patrick passed through Northampton on his way to throw the snakes out of Ireland… this was the capital of Britain throughout the Saxon period, this is where Thomas Beckett was tried, where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded… you just try to find out all of these things… Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull…

Did they come to Northampton?
…they performed on the little park, which is about a hundred yards, two hundred yards from where I’m now. I noticed a chimney pot on one of the houses near the racecourse that’s got this bearded face carved onto it. Which at first I thought was perhaps Jesus or Moses… then I realised that it’s got a cowboy hat and that in fact it was Buffalo Bill. They carved him on to commemorate the race course thing… it’s like parliamentary democracy, the idea of having parliaments or presidents, things like that, rather than kings or queens, that was all started at Naseby, when Oliver Cromwell won the British civil war and introduced the idea of parliamentary democracy, the first in the world.
I also think that I can make for a pretty good case for Northampton being the absolute centre of the universe, but I think that probably anybody could about anywhere that happened to be dear to them if they were prepared to do the work… you know, wherever you are standing is the centre of the Universe [laughter]. If you are prepared to do the work you can probably come up with a very convincing case for that. Yes, I accept that Northampton is just another ordinary British town, no different from any other. At the same time, to me is a magical place that is very much historically, and in almost every other respect, the exact centre of England, if not the centre of the Universe.

Really very fascinating. I saw something like that some weeks ago because here in Bologna there has been a visual performance made by Greenaway. He did this short film, at about I think 15-18 minutes showing some of the most important moments of history in Bologna and it was very striking because it seemed that so many things have happened here that no one could have ever imagined.
I believe it’s true everywhere, but it’s always marvellous and surprising when you found out about these things. This town where you live all your life, where you suddenly found out that all these marvellous things happened there that you had no idea about. When you start to do the research, the whole town comes to life; you see it in a completely new light.

There is a public library near my house and there are some old photos from the past and there are some more recent photos of the same place 30-40 years later. It’s really striking to see the differences: maybe within your life span, you don’t notice these changes much, but in a larger span there are some incredible changes.
Sure. I’ve been a big sucker for collections of local photographs. When they publish books of history of Northampton in photographs… I love these books because I find they give enormous pleasure and they break my heart. I’m looking at these places that I remember from my childhood and it’s a delight to see them again and it’s kind of painful to realize that they’re not there and that they haven’t been there for thirty years now. I think that… I don’t like nostalgia because I think it’s unhealthy. Nostalgia is a clinging to the past as a kind of denial of the future… that’s not healthy at all. On the other hand, taking energy from the past in order to create some sort of future… that seems to me to be valuable and a noble thing.

Is information the most important thing and not to long for something past?
Not to long for something that is lost, you know… oh, how lovely it was when I was twelve… it was lovely when all of us were twelve. It’s never going to happen again [laughter]. You know, like with The Birth Caul: I was able to look back at what it was like when I was twelve and to get some meaning from it, some information, some value, you know, that is useful to me and was hopefully useful to the people who heard the record. That’s the way to approach the past, as something that is living, is healthy, vital, ongoing, you know, not to treat the past as some pretty mausoleum of dead memories that you go and make a fetish of. That’s wrong, you know? The past is still alive, nothing ever dies. It’s this kind of momentum, this energy that carries us through time and through our lives. It’s a living thing… the people that are gone, the buildings that are gone … they’re not really gone, you know? They still exist in some sort of platonic space.

Understood. Since we have talked about your novel Voice of the Fire, are there any plans for your next novel?
The next novel it got… abandoned for a period. It was something I was going to do when Faith Booker, my editor, had asked me to do another book for Gollancz. I really liked Faith, so I really wanted to do another book for her. But then Gollancz fired her so I wasn’t very happy with them. She was the only reason I was working for them because I liked her as a friend. So I kind of put aside any ideas of doing a novel… maybe some point in the future… you know, give it a couple of years when I’ve tied up all the comics work.

Chris Staros was very kind and showed me the work you are doing with José Villarrubia, Mirror of Love and the new edition of Voice of the Fire…
Yes, I’m very excited about both those projects.

It’s certainly interesting to see that you still have some sort of fascination with the written word, since they’re such different works from your comic titles. Why did you decide to do a new edition of these two works?

Well, I mean, I suppose the short answer is because José suggested it. It seemed like such a wonderful idea because The Mirror of Love is something that I’ve always been proud of. I think that at the time it was written it was probably the only comprehensive guide to gay culture anywhere… which is horrifying! I mean, this was 1988, ’89 or something, and there weren’t any comprehensive histories of gay culture. I believe that are still only very, very few, so the fact that The Mirror of Love has appeared just once in a benefit magazine and has never been reprinted… when José suggested that he could turn it into something quite different, into a beautifully produced, memorable book with photographs, you know? And the images that I’ve seen so far that he’s produced have got that incredible passion that José brings to his work... they’re wonderful images.
For Voice of the Fire the idea of an American edition sounded good and when José suggested that he could do portraits of each of the characters, that sounded very good to me, especially because that meant he had to do a portrait of me for the final chapter, and he has done. And I have to say that thanks to José’s digital magic he’s managed to make me look like an absolute Love God. I fell in love with myself all over again looking at Jose’s pictures [laughs], you know, they’re fantastic-looking things. José has a real visionary sense to his work and I just really wanted to see what he did with the stuff from Voice of the Fire.
So, yes, both of those projects are very dear to me… what you were saying about the fact that I do still have a strong affection to the word and not just for the pictures… I’d say that my first allegiance is to the word. I think that writing, just writing words is more pure than writing comic strips. I mean, I think that the comics strip is a wonderful art form of its own, it’s a technology of its own, but the language, the essential word itself… these are the essential technologies. I think language is a technology that we’ve not begun to tap the full potential of. It’s a technology upon which all other technologies are based. That’s why I have the “logy” bit, the end of “techno”… I mean, writing is about technique, writing’s about body of knowledge… that’s what technology means, you know. Language is an inexhaustible technology, the things that we could do with it… like I say, I don’t think that we’ve really scratched the surface. You’re always going to find me involved in whatever forms the word takes… there’s going to be words behind it somewhere.

In fact, one of the things that fascinate me about your work is the use you make of technology in such different ways. Sometimes you are able to do something poetic with technology. I’m thinking, obviously to some passages from Watchmen, but also there are some striking images in the text of The Birth Caul, where you are able to focus some specific meanings with some scientific images.
Well, in Snakes & Ladders we take that probably even further, where we’ve got a discourse upon the creation of the universe and its formation…
I don’t just read occult books, but I also read New Scientist magazine every week and try to keep up with all the latest ideas, and I think that there is as much poetry in some of the ideas about quantum physics, about DNA, about science… I think that you should be able to find as much poetry in the most ultra-modern things as you can in the most rustic, beautiful, natural scenery. You should be able to find as much poetry in a dirty urban street as you can in a bucolic natural setting. Poetry is a kind of tool with which we try to understand the world and so it’s important that poetry be able to talk about technology, to talk about science, to talk about the things that we know now, because otherwise poetry gets left behind and becomes more and more useless, and those particular areas continue to develop without any poetry in them. I think that both of those outcomes are to be avoided, if possible. I try to find what is magical or marvellous in anything, whether that actually be something from the field of Magic or whether it be from the field of physics or whether it be from ordinary urban life. There’s generally something pretty marvellous about almost everything. It’s just a matter of… if something is boring to you it’s probably because you’re not looking hard enough, you know. If you were to look a bit harder, a bit closer you’d suddenly see that it was in fact the most marvellous thing in the universe.

Some of your past work was very experimental… for example, the incomplete Big Numbers, or Lost Girls, which was a different approach to the erotic/pornographic genre, From Hell, of which we have already talked about … what does it mean to experiment with comics medium? Do you think that there are still some unexplored zones in this medium?
I can see very little BUT unexplored zones. The areas that we have explored are tiny. You know, even in some stories I did for America’s Best Comics, just the odd little story here or there… we did one issue of Promethea, which is entirely based upon using the 22 Tarot cards to tell the complete history of the Universe, with accompanying anagrams of “Promethea”… that’s probably the most experimental story I have ever done. I really didn’t know if it would be possible to do that. 
Promethea. Art by JH Williams III.
Reading Promethea is really challenging because of the text, of the ideas and the information it contains on Magic, the Kabala, things like that…
The storytelling in Promethea has some strange things in it. Then, there was an issue of Tomorrow Stories, where we had, a Greyshirt story, that was all about a building, with 4 panels in each page, one for each floor of the building, they were all in different times…

Yes, I remember it…
It’s something you couldn’t do in any other medium other than comics… which I haven’t seen done in comics before… it took a little bit of working out, but… yeah, in every field that I work I don’t like the idea of doing something which has been done before… I don’t even like the idea of doing something that I’VE done before. I’ve got a very low boredom threshold. If you know that something you’re going to do is going to work, there’s probably no point in doing it. If you know it’s going to work it’s because you’ve done it before and it’s starting to get tame and safe… this is one of the reasons why we’ve decided to break down everything we’ve done so far on the new CD, halt progress on the musical front and try to get back to a more genuinely experimental state where we don’t know what we’re doing because… it’s how I’ve always been.
To return to the beginning of this conversation, constant experimentation was one of the main tenants of the Arts Lab movement. Everything could be experimental art… it was the ‘60s, you know, you couldn’t go to the toilet without it being experimental. I suppose I’m very much a child of the ‘60s, there’s a voracious hunger for something new, you know, all the time, something new. I guess I probably do have that in my work.

Never play safe and try to do something different every time.
Yeah, of course it gets progressively more difficult to find something more extreme to do. This is probably why I had to become a magician when I was 40. I couldn’t think of [laughs] anything I hadn’t done… I had to do something pretty extreme. But of course, when I’m 50 in a couple of years’ time, I shall have to try to become… I dunno, an axe murderer or something.

You have anticipated my next question. What are you planning to do for your 50th birthday? When you were 40 you decided to become a magician. Have you already planned something?
Yes. I’m going to pretty much wrap up the entire ABC line of comics, I’m going to pull out of mainstream comics, I’m going to disappear for a couple of years, at least… who knows? Maybe forever. I’m going to concentrate on things… probably more in the kind of things we discussed tonight, concentrate on things that don’t have to make money, where it doesn’t matter to me if nobody buys them [he laughs]… where I could just to do what exactly I want to do. That’s my plan when I become 50. It’s not much of a plan because part of it involves… I don’t want to know what I’m going to be doing when I’m 50. That’s part of the fun. Yeah, I suppose when I get to 50, I want to have a complete lack of certainty, security [laughs] or any of those things that most people really want by the time they’re 50. I want insecurity, uncertainty… you know, I mean… in short, my audience can rest assured I will be happy with whatever it is I’m doing.

Since you wrote Brought to Light and your recent short story with Melinda Gebbie, “This is Information,” do you think that there is any future for political comics or comics that try to spread a social message?
Well, YEAH… I mean, I think there’s certainly a future for political comics if there is a future for anything. We’ll have to see whether George Bush and Tony Blair launch their war against Iraq on November 5th, whether Saddam Hussein throws more scuds into Tel Aviv like he did last time, whether Ariel Sharon nukes Baghdad as he has more or less threatened to, whether the rest of the Arab states come into it, I mean… if there’s a future for anything, there’s a future for political comics. I want to hedge my bets on that question until, say, early next year if we’re all still here then... if there’s a future for anything, if there’s a future for any of us, there’s a future for political comics and I should love to be doing them. I really enjoyed doing “This is Information” with Melinda… I wish I could have perhaps been a bit more outspoken, but they were very worried that… the Americans are very sensitive.

Well I don’t know if, for example, in England you have heard about the scandal that happened this day at the Film Festival in Venice for the movie on September 11 made by eleven directors…
Yeah, I heard about it, yeah…

There has been some scandal because they said it was “un-American”…
Well, one of the things I really want to do when I’m 50 is that I don’t want to work for big American companies anymore. A lot of my very best friends, my girlfriend… are American. I love some American people but I’ve got to say that as a nation… they want to grow up. Yes, it was terrible what happened to the Twin Towers, but in the rest of the world we’ve all been having the shit bombed out of us since Guernica. Digging people out of rubble is kind of business as usual everywhere in the world apart from America. 
This is Information. Story by Alan Moore; art by Melinda Gebbie.
Last year I read a couple of books by Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal that said the same thing: “Ok, it was terrible, it was a really huge disaster, but for the rest of the world it was business as usual…”
Yeah, especially, you know… please, don’t stand there and say, “Why does everybody hate us? We didn’t do anything!” because that shows a complete ignorance of history, of the world situation, of reality… yes, you did do something, that’s why they did something. If you start investigating that a bit, then maybe, you know, you’ll come to some sort of understanding or realisation about these things. But… yeah, you know… I mean, like, Marvel have asked me to take part in another book they’re doing, which is a pro-peace book, but… I don’t know. They’re planning on it coming out in April, when we’ll probably almost certainly still be embroiled in a war against Saddam Hussein, if that goes ahead. I’m not sure that I feel comfortable in doing something with an American company talking about how the world should be at peace, when America is dragging the world to the brink of Armageddon, mainly to keep the oil companies happy. So, I’m still thinking about it… and if I come up with something really good to do that would work for me then maybe I’ll do it. Otherwise, I won’t.


Embryagados said...

Absolutely beutiful!! We are the editors of "Embryo" a spanish e-zine about the master, and we want to speak here at last to say thanks for your incredible blog and work. Of course "Alan Moore: Portrait of an extraordinary gentleman" is one of the most beloved items in our "Moore-collection", and this interview is great becouse it deals with so many important issues barely known about our favourite writer´s career. Stunning!!

We are all followers, students and lovers of this man´s great body of work and that´s why we must consider ourselves brothers in arms ;)

Well, thanks again, sorry for my poor english and a big cheers to you!!

smoky man said...

thanks for the visit and the kind words. Really.

Btw, the Portrait was also published in Spain, titled "Alan Moore retrato de un caballero extraordinario" (Recerca).