ABOVE: Photo by José Villarrubia
PART ONE: 09/09/02
Having been graciously invited to his Northampton abode by the World's Greatest Comics Writer, myself (Daniel Whiston) along with David Russell and Andy Fruish had a long and fascinating meeting with the Enlightened One, surrounded as we were by shelves groaning under the weight of books and comics, walls covered with mystic paraphenalia from throughout the ages, and a constant fug of smoke.
Having introduced ourselves (and established that the Dictaphone was indeed working), an intense two-hour introduction to Alan's methods, opinions and writing approach followed…
DW: I feel quite awkward doing this ‘cos I've never really interviewed anyone before…
AM: Well I'm a doddle for interviewing ‘cos I'm completely infatuated with the sound of me own voice…you just have to say a few basic words and I'll talk for the next hour or two…you prod me if you want me to stop or change to a different subject.
DW: The selfish motivation for me doing this is that I'm starting to try and write myself and would be really interested to get the benefit of your experience so from that point of view I'd be really interested in talking about the mechanics of the craft, and then maybe go on to talk about the higher level creative aspects in a little bit.
DW: So maybe we could start off with the nuts and bolts…what's your approach to plotting, for example?
AM: My approach to most things has been in a state of flux and has been developing over the last 25 years that I've been working at this, with regard to plotting for example. When I started out with this I was living in a state of such terror that I would get to the end of a story and not have an ending for it, or would not have at least a satisfactory ending for it, that I would plot my stories out almost to the finest detail. If I was plotting a 24-page Swamp Thing story I would have a kind of rough idea of where I wanted the story to go in my head, I would have perhaps vague ideas of what would make a good opening scene, a good closing scene, perhaps a few muddy bits in the middle. I'd then write the numbers 1 to 24 down the side of the page and I would put down a one line description of what was happening on that page. This kind of developed to the point of mania with Big Numbers .
LEFT: Big Numbers 1 cover
When I plotted Big Numbers I plotted the entire projected 12-issue series on one sheet of A1 paper – which was just frightening. A1 is scary – it's the largest size. I divided it along the top into 12 columns and along the side into something like 48 different rows across which had got the names of all the characters, so the whole thing became a grid where I could tell what each of the characters was doing in each issue. It was all filled with tiny biro writing which looked like the work of a mental patient, it was like migraine made visible, it was really scary.
I mainly did it to frighten other writers - Neil Gaiman nearly shat, the colour drained from his face when he saw this towering work of madness. I've still got it somewhere, I just don't look at it very often, it doesn't make me feel good, it's sort of: “Where was I?”
So. I used to plot meticulously, but I started to get the feeling that plot – if you're doing something that is very heavily plot-driven: if you're doing a crime story, if you're doing a whodunit or something like that where a plot is a very very necessary thing, but some stories where there's nothing but plot, it does sound like someone walking through a bog, you know: “Plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot….yeah yeah, your plot made sense, but I wasn't interested in it, I was not interested in any of these characters, your plot hung together but there was no real story”. So I try not to get quite so obsessed with plot.
With the Americas Best Comics that I've been doing along with most of the stuff I've been doing lately of any stripe I'm much more liable to just come up with – it's not even a half-arsed it's a quarter arsed idea at best – but it'll do it for the first couple of pages: “Yeah, that'll be good, lets have some three-eyed cowboys. I've got no idea what they're going to do in the story, but this issue's all about three-eyed cowboys. I mean, you might think of a story that's got three-eyed cowboys in it and hope it comes to some sort of resolution, but it always does.
I've been working for 25 years now and I can probably bring near enough any story to a satisfactory resolution just because I've been doing this every day for 25 years – you get more confident in your ability to bring a story home. So you can ride bareback, and take more risks. That is something I have a great deal of fun with. I mean, when I wrote Voice of the Fire , I knew that the last chapter being narrated by me would have to be something that was true, and that had really happened, and yet it would also have to tie up all of the themes and motifs of the novel, so it took me five years to write that, and I knew that not only would the last chapter have to really happen, it would have to really happen during the month that I was writing that chapter.
ABOVE: Cover to VOICE OF THE FIRE
So if it happened that nothing happened that month, and nothing happened that provided me with things like severed heads, you know, black dogs, all of the other motifs, than I would have wasted pretty much five years, because the novel wouldn't have an ending. I mean that is really high-stakes gambling - but the thrill, when it comes off is really something. But it always comes off.
If you've got the nerve, if you can sort of do it without flinching or worrying, then it always somehow kind of comes off, if you just follow the process. I mean, that's probably something – these days - when I started off, I was all technique, I was obsessed with technique, and I would approach every part of that technique meticulously, trying to think about it, how it might fit together, how it might be changed or modified, what effect you might be able to get by sort of twisting this a degree to the left, this a degree to the right.
These days I tend to find that I kind of improvise with a lot of confidence, and find that the material is often much better, much fresher…
DW: Maybe that's because you had a technique to start with…
AM: …and then you can go beyond it, I mean perhaps it's true to say that to actually get a grounding in the techniques…once you know how all this stuff works, then you can throw away the rulebook, you can throw away the manual and then sort of, just do it, you know, improv…
DW: To someone starting off in my position, what would you say were the elements of that toolkit?
AM: The first thing is: think about what you are doing, think about every aspect of it. Bryan Eno was somebody whose thinking really influenced me when I was starting out. Now he was a musician and I was moving into comics, but his thinking was generalised enough that it applied to a whole variety of fields. One of the things that he said was that some creative people seem to be governed by a kind of superstitious fear about examining their own creative processes – its almost like riding a bicycle, where if they stop to think about how they're doing it, they'll fall off.
Whereas my attitude is, if you're going to be making your living out of this stuff, it's like if you're making your living as a driver, you'd at least want to know what happens if the car grinds to a halt, what all that stuff under the hood actually does and is…actually understand your own creative process…think about everything…think about what you're doing.
If you're talking about comics writing, then many of the same things apply as with writing in general, but there is a whole couple of other layers to the possibilities because you've got an image track as well, and a kind of ‘over grammar', as I think I once heard it described as, where you've got the interaction, neither words nor pictures but the interaction of both of them.
DW: Scott McCloud talks about that quite a bit…
AM: Yeah, Scott, he's a clever lad. I'm not sure about his new: “all comics are gonna be online”, I think he's talking bollocks there…
DW: I think I agree in some ways…
AM: It's academic…he's pushing it with this second book, there's a lot of stuff in there which isn't actually accurate thinking, but his first book's impeccable.
DW: Maybe that comes from being more of an analyst and less of a practitioner…he hasn't written as much as he's thought…
AM: I think he's become more evangelist is the word you're looking for…he's got very very into this idea of: “everything would be better if it's on computers,” without actually thinking about any of the practicalities of it… DW: Like scrolling over the pages of a comic that's 20 metres wide…
AM: You could, and I believe he has actually done a strip especially for that format that can be read in all sorts of different ways, it sounds really cute, a really interesting experiment, I'm sure I'd love to do that once…the thing is, with Promethea 12 , looked at materially, it's exactly the same technology as Action Comics 1 ….it's a number of sheets of paper with like images and words printed on them and a staple in the middle.
LEFT: Cover to Promethea # 12
However, Promethea 12 is a complete history of the universe broken down into the 22 Tarot cards, with a commentary in verse, a frieze – the whole thing is one panel, where if you duplicated it and got two copies of it and stuck it all together, yes, it could be put up as a frieze, the ends of the frieze join together so it runs forever, there's a flipbook worked into the sides of the pages, we've got this joke by Aleister Crowley running all the way along the bottom, we've got perfect anagrams of the word ‘Promethea' – 22 of them ( laughter ) – that fit in perfectly with both the Tarot cards and the era of history we are applying that Tarot card to – now that is a higher technology.
To me, the basic technology is the word, I mean that's not technology, that is a fruit of technology. The clue with technology is the ‘logy' bit – technology means writing about a body of knowledge. The word is the mother technology, all technologies are based upon the word, the word is the primal technology. Dealing with language, dealing with being a writer, you're gonna be dealing with language. If it's comics, then that will involve a pictorial element, but a lot of the basic things are the same. If you want to learn how to write, be analytical, and that probably means when you're starting, be reductionist. It's too big a problem to grasp the whole thing at once, at least at the start of your career. Break it down. Start thinking about the different components of a story.
What things should a story have? It should have a plot, although this doesn't have to be the most important thing. The plot is the skeleton. Sometimes a beautiful and elegant plot is what a whole story's about, and that's great, but sometimes a plot need only be a string of events that takes you from point A to point B or D or whatever.
Now, there should also be what the story is about, which is not the same thing as the plot. What the story is about - what are you trying to say? What kind of shape or impression are you hoping to leave upon the reader? In a sense, the story, or poem or verse or whatever it is you're writing, you can kind of think of it as a kind of projectile. Imagine it is a kind of projectile which has been specially shaped to be aerodynamic, and that your target is the soft grey putty of the reader's brain. What kind of shape, what kind of indentation, what kind of lasting scar do you want to leave upon your reader? You design the missile accordingly. What are you trying to convey to them? It's going to be some kind of information. Now that can be factual information, emotional information, psychological information…it's gonna be some sort of information…it might be non-linear, it might be more like noise than information…sort of like James Joyce, because actually it's the noise that holds the most information.
Pure signal is like Janet and John – yes, you can understand everything on the page, but there's nothing much there worth understanding. Noise – or something approaching noise – is like a page of James Joyce, a page of Ian Sinclair – where there is such a density of information that it almost becomes incoherent, but it is full of information. So, it's the ways of getting that information across – plot, the story has to be about something, it has to have a purpose, it has to have a shape. It has to have a structure. If you're going to be really clever, you can maybe get the structure the plot and the theme all to reflect each other in some way – but that's just being clever.
Watchmen was kind of clever – I was going through one of my clever periods – probably emotional insecurity, I thought: “People will laugh at me ‘cos I'm doing superhero comics. I'd better make ‘em really clever, then no-one will laugh”. (laughter).
ABOVE: Detail from Watchmen , art by Dave Gibbons So we've got all this sort of thing with the metaphor of the clock face, and yes it is a kind of clockwork-like construction – a swiss watch construction – where you can see all the works of it. Different areas where the text reflects itself, different levels – I was showing off.
But you'll need all of those elements. They don't all have to be tied up as fussily as that – in fact, I kind of decided after Watchmen that there was no point ever doing anything like that ever again, because having done it once, it would have been silly to have taken it further and done something more complex, when it's already this sort of elaborate wedding cake of a comic book - you don't want any more icing on the top.
DW: I remember at the time you were worried that DC might do ‘Kid Rorschach' or something…
AM: Well, it was always possible, you never know what DC might do: ‘Blot the dog' (laughter). So you need these things: then, what you want to do – you're going to need a world for the story to happen in. It might be the real one, it might be an imaginary one – it doesn't matter, you're going to have to make it up in either sense, because there isn't a real world here, there's not an objective real world, at least I don't know anyone who's ever seen one. There's a lot of subjective worlds, like in Voice of The Fire where I wrote about this area. You have to be as fantastic in your description, in your imagining of the place as you would be writing about some alien world or some exotic landscape like the swamps of Louisiana or whatever – you have to wring the poetry out of the place - make it real.
Whether it's real or not, make it real, give it an emotional reality, give it the reality of writing, so when people read it it will conjure a sense of location, of place, of situation. Remember that you've got more than one sense – don't just tell them what everything looks like, tell ‘em what it smells like, tell ‘em what it feels like, tell ‘em what it tastes like. That can give a much more wraparound sense of reality. Now, characters are the most interesting and mysterious and wonderful part of the writer's craft in my opinion. Structure is dazzling – you can feel like a real big scientist when you're doing structure, but characters – they're strange because you'll think up some facts, some fragment of a character – it might be a name, it might be a personality, it might be a face, something like that. And once you've got that fragment, you think: “What does this suggest? If this is the name, what do they look like?” You put it together like a sort of broken vase, asking: “Now what goes next to this?”, so eventually…
To pluck an example out of thin air, Lost Girls , the thing we've got coming out next year, me and Melinda Gebbie. It's probably quite a good way to describe the writing process, to talk about how that came about, on all the different levels. We decided that we wanted to do something that was erotic. Why did we want to do that? Well, we decided that there was a need for it, that most erotica – or pornography (and the distinction seems to be largely in the income bracket of the person buying it) – most of it is shit, sadly. It's ugly on all sorts of levels – aesthetically ugly, physically ugly. Politically ugly, morally…on all sorts of levels…and there's no reason why that should be.
When you can get people beautifying violence in the cinema…
ABOVE: Cover to LOST GIRLS
DW: Any subject can be beautiful…
AM: Yeah, so why, with very few exceptions, has there never been any great pornographic art? Why has there never been any great pornographic writing that has actually tried to do all the same things that ordinary novels do…
DW: I think that's people think that it should be ugly and it should be dirty…
AM: Yeah, there's something wrong there – we identified a problem there. So, why not do absolutely brilliant pornography that was really horny, really clever, really beautiful, had characters and a story and all the things a regular novel should have. So ok, we cast around for ideas as to how we would do this, and that took a long time, because there were lots of wrong ways of doing it that we considered and thought: “no, that's wrong” – and that's gotta be instinct, sort of pick up an idea and try and follow it through in your mind and see where it goes, and if it goes somewhere you're not interested in, put it down. Pick up another one. With this idea me and Melinda had, I had an earlier idea that I'd put to one side and shelved, that you could maybe treat Peter Pan as a kind of coded erotic story. I think I'd been thinking about the Freudian notion of flying as a dream metaphor for sex, and I was thinking: “So, Peter Pan, he teaches Wendy how to fly, there's the island of the lost boys…I could see that that would have had a lot of sexual shadows to it, but I never really thought of what I could do with it other than…
AF: What about Hook? (laughter)
AM: Oh well, we've got very good stuff with Hook. I didn't know what to do with that other than do a rude version of Peter Pan, where you could say: “ah yes, this is going to be section…” and that didn't really seem to be enough, to sexualise a children's story, but Melinda was saying that she'd written a couple of stories she'd enjoyed that had had three women characters…that for some reason, she just liked to do stories about three women characters. That was just random input. But when I kind of connected that idea up with the Peter Pan idea, I suddenly thought: “alright, what if Wendy from Peter Pan is one of the characters?”, and then immediately I thought of Alice and Dorothy. I thought, all right, that's three different female characters from three different children's books, what if you had those women meet up at a hotel, or somewhere, and tell each other their stories, and their stories are sexually decoded versions of the stories that they are famous for.
So that sounded like it was going somewhere, it wasn't there yet, but it was going somewhere. So then I started to look at the dates those stories were written, and try and work out the relative ages of the three women, and what period they could have met, and what ages they would all have been. And I kind of worked it out that round about 1913, 1914 Alice would have been about 60, Dorothy would probably be about 20, 19, something like that, Wendy would probably be middle-aged sort of 30, 35, something like that.
AF: Middle aged?!?!? (laughter)
AM: Later youth. She'd probably be in later youth. Certainly not nearly dead. And I suddenly thought: “ok, they can meet in this hotel in 1913”, and then I thought: “1913, that was when the war was kicking off, and there was that Stravinsky performance in Paris of Rite of Spring when there were all the riots, and I thought:
Wouldn't it be interesting if this whole story was going on against a backdrop…if we had this story happening in a beautiful place, this sort of art nouveau hotel, where everything is perfect and lovely, it's erotic, everyone's fucking, you know… it's a pornotopia. And then as a counterpoint, in the background we have the riots at the Stravinsky concert which to a certain degree show the emotional pitch Europe was at at that time…then we'll sort of take that on, we'll show the assassination of Franz Ferdinand…we'll show everything sort of careening towards war, and pretty much the destruction of European culture, or at least a massive blow to it. All the pretty things get burned.
And I was thinking: “There's something epic about this, there's something really stark about sexuality and war, because most of the people who get sent to die in wars are young men who've got a lot of energy and would probably rather, in a better world, be putting that energy into copulation rather than going over there and blowing some other young man's guts out.
It's a perversion, war is a perversion of sex. Also, you only have to look at things like the language of war, any of these excitable young American pilots coming back from bombing Libya, and they're saying: “Yeah, we shot our missiles right up their back door”. Homoerotic. They will also, just before they attack somewhere, generally launch a sort of propaganda campaign saying the enemy is a homosexual…they have to make him into a woman. The Ayatollah Khomeini: “Oh yeah, he likes little boys”, that's what we were saying just before we bombed the shit out of Iran, or were going to, or that Colonel Gadaffi: “He dresses up as a woman”, this was the CIA rumour put around just before we bombed Tripoli…there's a lot of connections between war and eroticism, so it struck me that there was a story here where, yes, we could do our original thing of bringing weight and importance to pornography, and there seemed to be a plot there, the three women tell their stories and the First World War happens, and you put those two in juxtaposition against each other.
So all right, then we had to come up with the characters. Now, you might say that the characters were already there, but the characters were already there as little girls whereas we wanted them as women. So we looked at Lewis Carroll's Alice: what sort of 60-year old woman would she be? She's obviously the most intellectual of the three girls – she's also the oddest, she's the most eccentric…
DW: Did you see Dreamchild?
AM: Yeah I did, it was a nice take, but then Dennis Potter was a good writer…so what we came up with was this aristocratic lesbian with a laudanum habit, with a very active imagination, who's kind of lost…something happened to her as a child…she kind of went through the looking glass and never came back. There's a sort of glass screen – probably something to do with the opium – between her and herself. And we did the same thing with Wendy. Wendy's very middle class, very maternal, very prim, almost insufferable, priggish, you know…so she'd have got married to a man who was older than her, somebody who worked in the shipping industry and is really boring, who doesn't represent any kind of sexual threat at all because she had something happen to her, and her response was to shy away from sex and to see it as something shadowy.
(Phone rings and then there is a tea break).
AM: We were talking about character, and there comes a point, when you've done all these things, when you've tried to imagine about the character, then you try to imagine a little scene with him or her, and you try and imagine how they move, you try and imagine what their body language is. One of the things I used to do was to actually act things out in front of a mirror, to actually try and get the body language right and see what it felt like to be that person. I can do all that in my head now so I don't bother, but when you're starting out it's not a bad idea.
“…They might be just made out of words and paper, but their effect in the world can be massive…”
DR: Is acting something you used to do when you were younger?
AM: You couldn't really call it acting, I used to appear in sketches with the Northampton Arts Lab, which was a sort of experimental kind of arts collective that used to be around back in the ‘60s, they were very popular. Being a method actor, there's tips you can pick up…both you and an actor are going to have to create a character that is believable…you're going to have to know the way they talk, the sound of their voice, even if the reader will never be able to hear that because it's in word balloons or whatever, you wanna know what the sound of their voice is like, you want to know what their phraseology is like. Try and write a few words, see if you get a voice that sounds kind of natural. When you've got all these things, you find there comes a point with the character – probably sooner rather than later – where (this is a cliché, that all writers spout) – where the character comes to life. And that's not quite it, that doesn't quite describe the phenomena, although that's partly it – its where the characters first start doing things that surprise you – its sort of when –
DW: Sorry to interrupt, I've only just started writing myself but I've experienced that myself on a couple of occasions, and it's rather – odd…
AM: It's the sort of thing that leads you to become a magician at the age of 40, (laughter) because you can't come up with any rational explanation for it… because it's like the comic writer Alvin Schwartz, who used to write Superman in the ‘50s for DC – I think he wrote the Superman newspaper strip in the 50s? – he also wrote a book called A Very Unlikely Prophet , which is completely mad, but is really interesting, because what he says is, you sit round with the other writers, tossing around ideas for Superman stories, and somebody would come up with an idea: “what if Superman does this, this and this?” – and unanimously, the rest of the group would say: “Superman wouldn't do that” – and he said that this had happened so many times that he'd thought: “Hang on, Superman isn't real, what do we mean ‘Superman wouldn't do that?'”. He started to come to the conclusion that there did exist somewhere – some sort of Platonic space, where there was –
DW: Ideational space?
AM: Idea space is what I'd call it.
DW: My background is political philosophy, where I've heard a lot of that talked about – totally different discipline, but say aspects of globalisation…
AM: Something like Carl Popper with his ‘World Three', or something like that? A space in which concepts exist?
DW: I think so, but it wasn't quite as philosophical as that, more of a Marxist school of thinking, in that the important things about globalisation are not what actually happens in the economy – I mean that's important, but the actual essence of it is nothing to do with that…
AM: It's the immaterial structures and things like that that are the important things?
DW: And extensions of those into the world are what we observe, but that isn't what's causing it…
AM: Of course, Marxism is an example of what Carl Popper would have called a ‘World Three' structure, in that it's got immense power as an idea, but you couldn't actually hold up anything in the world and say: “this is Marxism”. You couldn't even hold up Kapital and say: “this is Marxism”. It's a book…anyway, what he was saying was that there seemed to be some level – or he and the writers seemed to be behaving as if there was some level, some platonic level, on which these archetypal sort of idea-forms actually existed, where there was a Superman, or some sort of proto-Superman, some sort of er-Superman, who sort of, if a writer came up with a bad idea and he didn't like it, he'd just say: “no, I wouldn't do that”.
Now, that is kind of stupid, but it's kind of true. I've worked on Superman, just using that character. If you're a conscientious writer, you can't help but feel the weight of myth and history that is connected…its like if you were writing Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a massive figure in people's minds. More massive than a lot of real historical characters – these figures have real weight. They might be just made out of words and paper, but their effect in the world can be massive, if they've got the right kind of mass, the right kind of gravity and momentum.
So yes, there does come this point when characters start talking to you. They'll start telling you what
they want to do, you'll know what they would say and what they wouldn't say. I mean when I started writing Watchmen , I'd got no idea that Rorschach was gonna be dead by the end of it, it was just by about issue three I started to know the character and I thought: “he's got a death wish”…he's so self-destructive, he's clearly…he wants out. There's no way that he's gonna live through this, he wouldn't be able to live with any sort of moral compromises, so he'll have to die. But it was the character himself who told me that, after two or three issues. I'd got no idea when I started it.
Detail of Rorschach from Watchmen , art by Dave Gibbons
So OK, you'll have to go through all of these areas - characterisation – they're all big – you could probably fill a massive book with your thoughts on all of them – sooner or later you get down past – like I say this is reductionist thinking – you'll break it down into areas like characterisation, plot, ambience, place, location (location location)…all these things…sooner or later you're going to get down into the molecules, the molecules and the atoms. This is down to words. An awful lot of my writing – why it reads well is because I've read it before I wrote it. I have read it to make sure that there are no clunky syllables, so that there's a nice sort of bumdabumdabumdabum there's a nice sort of rhythm, there's no sudden three-syllable words where there should have been a two-syllable word, on which the mental voice of the reader will trip. Rhythms – that was something I learned from performance, with the Arts Lab – if you're talking in the right rhythm, people don't even give a shit what you're saying. The rhythm alone will get everybody hypnotised. And that's true of written work. Not so much of written work – you have to rely upon the reader reading it in the right way and getting the right rhythm – but you can write so that you can at least guide the reader towards certain rhythms.
If I ever write a book on writing it will probably be called Real Men Don't Use Thesauri , because no, don't touch ‘em, I think they're cheating. What's wrong with having an enormous vocabulary? What's wrong with thinking: “oh, there should be a word that means this or that, could it be this, could it be…”…making up a word and checking in the dictionary and seeing if there is such a word and if it meant what you thought it did. That's better, and alright you can waste an hour trying to get the exact right word that's got the right kind of sound, the right flavour, the right colour…that fits just perfectly.
DR: Associations as well are important…
AM: Yeah, because a word sometimes will have completely illogical associations just because they sound like another word…
AF: There's a sort of synasthesia going on there…
AM: There's an awful lot of synasthesia, I mean one of the greatest writers, a lot of the greatest writers, one of my favourites, Vladimir Nabakoff, he was a synasthetic...to him, the letter ‘O' was white, the word ‘Moscow' was green flecked with gold…olive green, flecked with gold. I can see that. And it's a good thing to try and develop. Synasthesia is a great literary tool. You'll be able to come up with perfect metaphors that are really striking and strange, because they maybe jump from one sense to another – try describing a smell in musical terms.
Actually, it can be quite easy. Also, it's how we tend to do things anyway. They've just proven that – you know when Jilly Gordon gets on a roll on The Food Program and she's talking about: “..it's a kind of buttery, composty, tractory – I'm getting peat, I'm getting burning tyres…”. Now they've done tests - those people who describe the flavour and bouquet of wine, they're not describing the flavour or the bouquet at all – they are synasthetically describing the colour. They're taking visual cues. They did things where they'd put an odourless and tasteless colour agent into white wine to make it look like red wine, and then they'd note the kind of language the wine-tasters were using. When it was white wine they were using: “…buttery, new-mown hay”…you know, yellow, basically, was what they were saying, whereas when it was red wine they were saying: “…its wonderfully fruity, blackcurranty”…talking about red things. It's synasthesia. It's how a lot of our senses…I think synasthesia is probably a lot more common than the sensory aberration that it's made out to be, and there's probably a key there, somewhere, to how we sense everything. Synasthesia. There's something there.
But yeah, it's when you get down to the words themselves. I mean I've got some books here that are incredibly valuable. I've got Bibles that are older than America, I've got signed books by Alistair Crowley, I've got some incredible shit…these are all Golden Door magic wands, that's Austin Osmond's Fair Original, these are Dr Dee's tables... the thing I'd grab if there was a fire is my Random House Dictionary , which is an etymological dictionary which tells you where the words come from so you actually know what you're talking about. If you use a word like ‘fascism' you can actually have a look and see: “now where does that word come from, what does it actually mean?”. That'll save you a lot of embarrassment. It's also got a great Encyclopaedia function…it's a biographical dictionary, it's got all famous names and obscure names and dates...it's fantastic. And that is my best Grimoire if you like, my best magic book, because it's got all the words in the English language and where they come from and what they mean.
If you're gonna be a writer, you'll cover all this territory, from the broadest categories down to, like I say, the sub-atomic detail of words and syllables…
AF: And when they get down to quarks and things as well they talk about them in weird terms like ‘strangeness' and…
AM: ‘Charm'. I think that ‘quark' as a matter of fact is from James Joyce, a word from James Joyce…
DR: Finnegan's Wake…
AM: What's the actual quote? “A quark…” I've forgotten. Or it might even have some associations with Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark . Yeah, you know, this is literally magical territory. Eventually, to learn all this technique you can amass an incredible vocabulary, which will…you'll get cleverer. The more…as far as I understand it, consciousness is predicated upon language. Language comes first. It's not that language grows out of consciousness, if you haven't got language, you can't be conscious. You need words for things. You need words before you know what they are, before you can store any information. You need concepts, which are verbal. You need a concept of ‘I' to start with, and then all the rest. So much of this stuff is made up of language, so much of our reality, our consciousness, everything, is made up of language, that you can study it in so much of its fine details, you can learn all about the techniques.
And remember when you're learning the techniques, remember what you're actually doing – don't kid yourself. If you think there's a huge amount of difference between you and Paul Joseph Goebbels, you're kidding yourself. Any form of art is propaganda. It is propaganda for a state of mind rather than a nation-state but it is propaganda nonetheless, and it's best if you accept that and understand what you're doing and be honest about it: you are trying to change the mind of your target audience. You are trying to change their perceptions, you are trying to stop them from seeing things how they see things and start them seeing things the way you see things. The ethics of that we could debate all night (laughter) but basically, the thing is, I can, so I will. I'm aware of how words can change people/s minds, can change the way people think. So are all of the advertisers, so are all of the politicians, so are all of the people who run our lives. They're not pulling any punches – I would say that it is beholden unto any writer to equally not pull any punches, on the other side. If you believe something, if you believe something is right or something is wrong then yeah, try and convince other people. Spread the idea around like a designer virus. Make it so that other people will repeat it. This is partly what you're doing. And you'll probably have to consider all these aspects of writing…
DR: It's like some of Richard Dawkins' ideas about memes.
AM: Yeah memes, interesting idea. You're probably going to have to consider all of these ideas – and eventually you're gonna come up against: the mystery. I mean because there is an essential mystery in writing. It's like you were saying (to DW) about the first time that characters you've created start doing things other than what you'd intended them to. Why do they do that? What do you actually mean when you say that? These and other things will start to impinge upon you. You will start to notice that, you'll maybe write some stories and you won't know where they came from – they were powerful, they were heartfelt, but they didn't seem to come from anywhere. And then a year later, the events will happen that make perfect sense of those stories if the stories had been written after the events rather than before them. You get enough things like that and you start to – in my case anyway – you start to - technique, craft, these things have their limitations.
DW: A couple of questions come to mind – I had one initially but another one just popped in. A couple of creative people, one a musician, the other a writer – Steven King and Shane MacGowan – have both made very similar comments about the fact that they discover what they do rather than create it from within themselves, necessarily. I think Stephen King's talked about writing as archaeology, finding things together and dusting them down, Shane MacGowan's talked about: “songs are floating in the air, and it's my duty to grab them before some cunt like Paul Simon does”.
AM: Ha-ha, good point Shane. R.A. Lafferty, when I asked him: “Where do you get ideas from?”, and he said: “Ideas are like pumpkins, they just float through the air, and hit people on the head”. It's a similar idea. I've noticed – and this is an experiment that perhaps a lot of other writers could try: start writing upon a subject upon which you don't know very much, or about which you have no opinions. Start writing. You will find that you've not got something perfectly planned in your head and you're writing it down, you'll find that the words are forming practically at your fingertips on the keys of the typewriter, the ideas are forming, ideas that you never had before. Juxtapositions are occurring to you. Your mind goes into a very different state. If you actually notice this – you can write certain different types of prose, which can leave your mind in a state every bit as altered, as say psychedelic drugs.
Because our entire universe is made up of consciousness, we never really experience the universe directly we just experience our consciousness of the universe, our perception of it, so right, our only universe is perception. All of our perceptions are made up of words. You alter the words, you alter the perception, you alter the universe. And if you actually look back you come, as I did, to a point where craft no longer really cuts it, where you want something more than craft. Yes, you know skilful ways of persuading people to your argument or things like that, but that's not good enough. That is when you come up against a point like I did. Where I started to look at the archaic notions of writing. Not writing theory as it is now – let's look at what writing used to be. And of course, if you start looking at it, after a while it's obvious that writing must have had its origins in magic, in that anyone who'd got command of written language, would have had supernatural powers.
“…Text-messaging or The Sun , these are perfect Orwellian ways of limiting the vocabulary and thus limiting the consciousness…”
AF: So in those early times, anyone who had that bigger grasp of language which was in its early stages looked like they were doing something incredible which is why these days…
AM: They were doing something incredible…
AF: Yes they were, they were, but we look back…
AM: The thing is, imagine, the person who first came up with the idea of representative marks, to actually make that huge jump of saying: “Right, there's a hut - we haven't got a word for it yet, but – ‘hut'. That'll be ‘hut', that's what we'll call it - ‘hut'. So that sound means that thing over there, and if I draw this little thing, these lines on the wall – ah – the ‘hut'. In some way they represent, they stand for it. That is a massive leap of consciousness, from which the whole of the rest of human consciousness springs from that point. That is what distinguishes us from the animals, written language. There's not much else we do that they can't, but written language does seem to be a very important point. So you imagine someone who'd got written language – you could pass you thoughts at a distance, you could remember things, you could fix time – you could remember that: “Hang on, I did this yesterday and that the day before and that the day before…”. You could suddenly start to build a consciousness for yourself, because you'd have words. So yeah, you'd be big time magic.
Now, you see this carried on into the bardic tradition of the Welsh bards, things like that. Now, as I understand it, the bards were feared. They were respected, but more than that they were feared. If you were just some magician, if you'd pissed off some witch, then what's she gonna do, she's gonna put a curse on you, and what's gonna happen? Your hens are gonna lay funny, your milk's gonna go sour, maybe one of your kids is gonna get a hare-lip or something like that – no big deal. You piss off a bard, and forget about putting a curse on you, he might put a satire on you. And if he was a skilful bard, he puts a satire on you, it destroys you in the eyes of your community, it shows you up as ridiculous, lame, pathetic, worthless, in the eyes of your community, in the eyes of your family, in the eyes of your children, in the eyes of yourself, and if it's a particularly good bard, and he's written a particularly good satire, then three hundred years after, you're dead, people are still gonna be laughing, at what a twat you were.
(break in tape)
AM: I'll give a brief recap in case we feel we missed anything. Magic and language are practically the same thing, they would at least have been regarded as such in our distant past. I think it is wisest and safest to treat them as if they are the same thing. This stuff that you are dealing with – words, language, writing – this is dangerous, it is magical, treat it as if it was radioactive. Don't doubt that for a moment. As far as I know, the last figures I heard quoted, nine out of every ten writers will have mental problems at some point during their life. Sixty percent of that ninety percent – which I think works out at roughly fifty percent of all writers – will have their lives altered and affected – seriously affected – by those mental problems. I think what that translates to is - nine out of ten crack up, five out of ten go mad. It's like, miners get black lung, writers go bonkers. This is a real occupational hazard. There's plenty of ways to go bonkers, some of them a lot quieter, some more insidious than others – drink, heroin, there's lots of other sorts of things – but this is dangerous - we're dealing with the unreal. You're dealing right on the borderline of fact and fiction, which is where our entire world happens. We're living in a world of fact and we've got out heads full of fiction, the characters that we've invented for ourselves – we're all writers, we all invent characters for ourselves, roles in this little play that we're running in our head that we call our lives. With a writer, you're dealing with the actual stuff of existence, you're playing the God game. All the things that you will have to consider before you write a story are exactly the things God had to consider before he created the universe – plot, characters (laughter) and what's it mean, what's it about, what's the theme here…motifs. A lot of them suns, they'll do, we'll put them everywhere – hey, snakes! These are easy…(laughter).
So you're dealing with dangerous stuff, you're in dangerous territory. It can…you can start to forget, for example…there's a great thing in a Jack Trevor Storey book, and he's a brilliant writer, Jack Trevor Storey, he was, just before he died. There's one bit where he's talking to this woman, and she's telling him about events that have happened, and she says: “Wait a minute, did that happen, or did that happen in my story?” And she suddenly starts to look terrified, and he's a writer himself so he knows what to do: he walks up, slaps her round the face and says: “What's your name?” And she sort of, so he slaps her again and says: “What's your name?” and she gives him a name, and he says: “Right, what's just happened to you is that you have for the first time confused your real life with your fiction. Don't worry about this – this is going to happen quite a lot. It's just important that you remember that you're a real person, this is your name, that other stuff was stuff that you wrote. Keep the line there”.
But it's difficult to do, especially if you start messing around and writing self-referential things, like writing a novel about your home town in which you are the final character…
AF: Alan World.
AM: Alan World – well actually, that was a complete mistake, well not a mistake –
AF: Well it shows! (laughter)
AM: It was, I just looked through the phone book – all the names from Big Numbers I got from the phone book, and I found A. World and I thought: “that's good”, and I thought: “Alan”. I could have thought: “Andrew”, but I didn't, that's just the breaks.
So, it's a difficult job. It's a dangerous job. You're probably not gonna make any money out of it. Most writers don't. You go down to W.H.Smiths or Waterstone's, most of those writers on the shelves, that is not their only job. Yeah alright, Stephen King and Catherine Cookson, Jeffrey Archer, well other than convict and embezzler, most of them have got another source of income. It's difficult, it's dangerous, it's not necessarily good for your mind…I mean the rewards of it are fantastic, I wouldn't do anything else. To me it is the ultimate job and yes, it has made me more intelligent, because it's like George Orwell: if you want to make people less intelligent, limit their vocabulary, limit their language, give them a sort of ‘Newspeak' that's like –
AM: Text-messaging or The Sun , these are perfect Orwellian ways of limiting the vocabulary and thus limiting the consciousness. So the corollary of that holds true as well. If you want to expand people's consciousness, give them better language, wider language, new words. Learn to love words, learn to delight over a new word that you've found. I mean, looking through News Scientist – the ‘Amigdale'.
DR: Oh yes, the part of the brain to do with fear isn't it?
AM: Emotion, all emotion is put through this tiny little bit called the ‘Amigdale'. Or perhaps the ‘Amidgda-luh', I'm not exactly sure how it's pronounced but it's great either way. A phrase I read once in a book – “the annalidden ancestor” – and I thought: “Annaliden, what's that?”, and I looked it up in a book and I couldn't find a word ‘Annaliden', and for about two years I thought: “I didn't dream that, that must be real, ‘the annalidden ancestor'”. Eventually I realised it's a word that's been kind of coined, based upon ‘annalid', which is a type of worm. So, ‘the annalidden ancestor' is kind of like Pichia, one of those flatworms in the Burgess Shale that have got the rudiments of a spine, and thus is an ancestor to anything that's got a spine. Yeah, words, they're lovely.
AF: ‘Simulacra', I like.
AM: I'm probably a bit dyslexic, I always pronounce it “sim-ul-ac-ra”.
DR: Do you ever pick up the dictionary and start leafing through it?
AM: Oh yeah, sometimes I sort of: “Look up how many words do begin with ‘N'? There's not many, I could probably get through that in half an hour”. But you find words like “Xanthic” which means “yellowish” – it's lovely. You've gotta love language, love writing right from the molecular level of words, or even letters: the letter ‘A' originally had wings.
DW: Aerosmith's logo's gone back to that.
AM: Yeah, well, they've always been ahead of the curve (laughter) or a long way behind it. And the letter ‘C' was the other way round, and was supposed to represent the crescent moon. Language itself is such a fantastic phenomenon with it's own fantastic history, you can get involved in writing to whatever depth you want, but the thing is that really you have to kind of remember the best way to do it, with all this that I've said about the dangers of madness, treat writing the way that you would treat a god. If you believed in such things, if you were going to devote yourself to a particular god, then that's the best way to treat it. Treat it as if it's not just some abstract idea of a god, treat it as if it was a real god that will maybe, if you do right by the god, will maybe grant all your wishes, will maybe lavish nothing but success and wonder upon you and, if you don't do right by the god, will begin to fuck with you in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. Treat it like that, and you won't go far wrong. In effect, that's what you're doing.
Writing will consume your life, because so much of writing happens in your head – you don't need to be ‘at work', you don't even need to be awake. You're not gonna get a respite from writing when your head hits the pillow, you're not gonna get a respite from writing when you go on a holiday caravan to Great Yarmouth, or anywhere – the moon – you can't get away from it, it's in your head. And if it's working properly, it's probably obsessive. If you've got a story on the boil, and if you're a writer you probably will have, you're probably thinking about problems with that story, good things about it that you wanna enhance and make even better, and you're probably thinking that all the time. You might be thinking that when you're having sex. You might be thinking that when you're eating dinner, you might be thinking that on public transport. This is something that will take over your life. Surrender. Surrender to it right from word one. Don't fight. It's bigger then you are, it's more important than you are, just do what it says. Even if that seems to be completely ruining your life, do what it says. Even if it tells you to do something stupid – if it tells you to jump off a cliff, do it. (laughter).
This is my experience. I mean, when I was 25, I'd got a baby on the way, or my wife had at least, we were living up Blackthorn, it was really shitty, but I had got a job. I was working down the gas board, and it was a regular job. It wasn't a great job, but with a baby on the way…at which point, writing told me to quit my job, with a baby on the way…
AF: That must have been a tough decision at the time…
AM: But really, it wasn't, I hadn't really got much of a choice by that point, because I was kind of aware what the alternative would be, and I couldn't stand that, that frightened me, that frightened me more than dooming my wife and baby, which frightened me considerably…it would have just doomed me to something different, if I'd stayed with that gas board job. So yeah, if it said jump off a cliff, do it. It knows what it's talking about, it's more intelligent than you are. It knows more about you than you do. Treat it like that, treat it like a god, and you probably won't go far wrong. And always try to do your best for the deity that you swore yourself to, and it might reward you. You shouldn't go into it expecting it to reward you, you just do this for the glory of writing itself. You want to do this for Thoth and for Hermes – you wanna write something that is just that good, just for the glory of writing. And like I say, that's a completely irrational attitude, but I think at the end of the day, that's the best one. That's got me through 25 years.
What was your second question? (laughter)
DW: I feel a bit anally-retentive…we've talked about writing a lot, but what about in terms of writing for comics, about writing in collaboration with another creative person, rather than by yourself?
AM: (Gets up and walks away to desk to fetch something and comes back with it). Now this is something that won't come over on the tape, but you can perhaps reconstruct for your audience.
DW: Using glove-puppets…
AM: Or give them a brief verbal description…now somewhere in here… (Alan has fetched a battered blue hardback notebook of lined A4 paper; falling apart at the seams, it looks like a family heirloom, Grandfather's old schoolbook brought down from the attic. He opens it out on the living room floor, and Alan and Dan crouch over it, Alan pointing things out to Dan).
DW: At this point Mr Moore reveals his Grimoire…
(The book has tiny sketched-out panels (stick figures basically), laid out quite precisely to form a rough outline of a page from a Promethea script (the scene has two characters in conversation walking down a beach, with a boat on shore in the foreground in some panels). Each panel has a line drawn from it to handwritten dialogue that is accompanied by two reference numbers – one for the page no. and one for the panel no.)
AM: Horrible, tatty book, but what this has got in it is lots of crappy little drawings that are indecipherable to anybody else but me, but which are basically all I need for anything re writing comics. They will give me a breakdown…they'll just be sort of these pages – these are bits of Promethea – I will break down the page area into a number of panels. Now, I've got a simple, mathematical mindless formula that I follow that is – I mean if you look at these little bits of dialogue that go in each of the panels you'll see that they have little numbers written after each of the lines and what this is is the number of words.
Now, this is basically something that I took from Mort Weisinger, who was the harshest and most brutal –
DW: DC editor?
AM: - of the DC editors during the ‘60s.
DW: Bit of a tyrant from what I hear.
AM: Oh Christ, he was a monster, I remember Julie Schwarz telling me – who was a lovely man – he told me about Mort Weisinger's funeral – and this was probably just an old Jewish joke that he'd adapted – for Mort Weisinger – but he said that apparently during Jewish funerals there's a part where people can stand up and spontaneously will say a few words about the departed – personal tributes, things like that. So it's Mort Weisinger's funeral, and it gets to this bit in the funeral and there's absolute dead silence, and the silence just goes on and on and on and nobody gets up and says anything and eventually this guy at the back of the synagogue gets up and says: “His brother was worse!” (laughter).
But anyway, Mort Weisinger, because he was the toughest of the editors, I thought: “Alright, I'll take his standard as the strictest”. What he said was: if you've got 6 panels on a page, then the maximum number of words that you should have in each panel, is 35. No more. That's the maximum. 35 words per panel. Also, if a balloon has more than 20 or 25 words in it, it's gonna look too big. 25 words is the absolute maximum for balloon size. Right, once you've taken on board those two simple rules, laying out comics pages – it gives you somewhere to start – you sort of know: “OK, so 6 panels, 35 words a panel, that means about 210 words per page maximum”.
DW: And if you've got one panel you'd have 210…
AM:…and if you've got 2 panels you'd have 105 each. If you've got 9 panels it's about 23-24 words – that'll be about the right balance of words and pictures. So that is why I obsessively count all the words, to make sure that I'm not gonna overwhelm the pictures, that I'm not gonna make – oh, I've seen some terrible comic writing where the balloons are huge, cover the entire of the background –
DW: Doesn't that tend to often happen when you've got what's called the American plot style of scripting which is where the writer basically gives a very broad breakdown –
AM: I've never really got on with that, I can't see – that just looks sloppy to me. I mean, I remember once Archie Goodwin, who I greatly respected, saying it does allow for serendipity. Yeah, I can see that, but I should imagine that as a reward that is probably outweighed by the fact that all the characters, the artist has to give them neutral expressions because he doesn't know what they're gonna be saying, or thinking, in those panels, so he has to make them look kind of neutral, a bit constipated, and everything gets sort of blanded out. Whereas, I can control this – I can make sure that everything works, at least in my little crappy drawings, I can make sure there's not too many words for any panel –
DW: So this number refers to the page and the panel within the page?
AM: Er yeah, well this is a spread so it's 18 and 19 5, 18 and 19 –
DW: Oh right, with the staple line in the middle?
AM: Yeah, that's it – it's a nice way to get to grips with a page. As to how you lay the page out, in your suggestions to the artist, that will depend. How much room have you got? What's the pacing like? One thing to remember in comics – and this is an interesting axiom – space equals time. To convey time in a comic – it's spatial. I remember, when I was doing From Hell – I think it's the epilogue? – no, the prologue, the prologue, where I've got the prologue with just the two old guys on the beach, and I'd been doing that in just little panels because I thought, that's good, keeps it intimate, these little panels just – one of them says this, the other one says that, the next one just sits down and takes a breather – and then I thought; “Alright, I'll have one of them say: ‘Its getting cold, shall we be getting back?'”. And then I thought: “Right, they're right down by the tide line there, and actually it would take them quite a long while to walk back up the beach, and I don't just wanna suddenly jump to them on the seafront, and I don't wanna caption saying: ‘Meanwhile, shortly later…'”. So I thought alright, I'll just put a big wide panel taking up the whole tier – big picture of the beach at night – and there's these two little men, walking up the beach and the width of the panel will convey, it took a long while to do this. Alright, it will take the reader 3 seconds – 2 seconds – to actually look at the picture and take it in – there's no words in it – but it will convey time.
DW: There's some scenes in Dark Knight where Frank Miller really chops it up, in terms of one scene –
AM: - where you splinter the action, that is, all of a sudden it's all happening, it's happening in slow motion, you see something that would take 2 seconds, and you do it in 10 panels –
DW: - a drop of water falling while something happens –
AM: Yeah, yeah, that's it. I think most of what Frank based his stuff upon – on which any aspiring comic writer would do very well to go back to – is Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman – they're the best. Of their period. They came up with a lot of the devices, a lot of the ideas, that Frank and people elaborated upon – you look through Eisner and you can come up with so many brilliant ideas that he just throws away. Or probably even better, look back at the early American newspaper strips of the turn of the century.
DW: Dragon Lady and stuff like that?
AM: No no, before that – Steve Canyon was sort of ‘40s, Terry and the Pirates , that was all sort of 40s. You go back to 1902, you look at Windsor Mackay…
DW: Little Nemo in Slumberland…
AM: Little Nemo in Slumberland , Dreams and Rarebit Themes , you look at Frank King, Gasoline Alley , a sort of deceptively mundane strip, but then you got the Sunday colour supplements which were pieces of art that would stagger you if you came across them in the latest issue of Raw or something like that. So forward-thinking, so brilliant – I mean there was a thing that I did in Big Numbers 2 which was a thing that I did just for the pleasure of 2 or 3 – or the discomfort of - 2 or 3 other comic writers who'd be able to see what I'd done. And what this was was that I'd looked at some of the early Frank King Gasoline Alley pages where, for the sale of variety, he'd used the whole page as one big image. You're looking down upon this warren of alleys, and he breaks this down into panels and in each of the panels there is basically a one-off sight-gag, or a one-off verbal gag, that are all happening at the same moment, in this alley. And I thought: “That's charming, there's something lovely about that, wouldn't it be great if you could have a moving element, that was moving between the panels”. But I thought: “Yeah, I can see his problem here, as soon as you get to the right-hand side of the top row, then the action's gotta suddenly go to the middle left-hand side –
DW: I guess you could spiral couldn't you?
AM: Well, there are different possibilities – yeah but with a spiral you're gonna end up in the middle, rather than the bottom left-hand corner which is where you wanna end up – so when I did Big Numbers 2 I came up with this brilliant idea of how you could have a family arguing around a breakfast table, and you could have everyone moving logically – in different directions – panel 1, the Mum is, I think she's, now hang on a minute I think she's taking a dish off the table, panel 2 she's scraping it into a peddle-bin which is just next to the sink, where she's washing it up, and then panel 4 she's putting it in the dish-rack and she's starting to come down the right-hand side of the kitchen into panel 8.
ABOVE: Art from Big Numbers 2
Meanwhile you've got her husband sitting at the table – there's the children at the table as well – they're having this conversation, it all works perfectly – and he gets pissed off with her and storms out down into panel 9, and then walks out of the door into panel 12, where he storms out of the kitchen leaving his wife to come down through panels 4, 8 and 12, leaving the family looking after him – it's a brilliant little whirlpool of a scene.
It was all inspired by Frank King, I thought: “If only I could do what he'd done, but make it a bit cleverer and have moving elements in”. I've done the same in Lost Girls , I've got a couple where that problem of having to have the zig-zag line, that's fine if you've got sort of a down view of a path that winds like that or a staircase that will double back on itself, so that that will do the right thing. Yeah, you can do it, but there's other variations.
DW: Do you think you could do that in any other medium?
AM: No. Which says that comics is a very versatile medium that's got possibilities that people have not even begun to touch.
DW: Underlying that, what do you think it says about the technique…
AM: Why does it work? Why do comics work? Well, you'd have to get into mad theory, but if you want more mad theory, I'd say that the reason comics work – and work they do – I mean, when I was researching Brought to Life I found out that the Pentagon had done tests to see what was the means by which information could be most easily taken in and could be most easily retained – they'd tried straight text, they'd tried text with photographs, they'd tried illustrations with captions, photographs with captions, and they'd tried comics. Comics were best.
Now, why should that be? Why are comics so brilliant at fixing ideas in people's minds, getting them across? I would say it's because the verbal parts of our brains – what used to be called ‘left-brain' activities before we found out that they're actually kind of all over the place – you might say that the ‘currency' if you like – for what used to be called our left brain – you might say that that was the word. Now, our pre-verbal minds – what used to be called the ‘right brain' – you might say that the currency for that side of the brain – the pre-verbal part – would be the image. Now, comics might therefore be one of the only forms of art that calls upon you to actually have a kind of integrated experience. Because some people who have trouble reading comics – and there are a lot of people – well they'll say: “Do you look at the pictures first or do you read the words?”, whereas if you read comics you know that you kinda do both at once. You're taking in the picture peripherally while you're reading the words, and your eyes will sort of zig around – and you kind of absorb them both at once. And I think-
DW: That synasthesic thing is the same kind of thing…
AM: It's utilising both lobes of the brain, if you like, or what used to be called both lobes of the brain. And it might be that because it's the only control…alright, films have an image track and they have a sound track, but, big problems: you can't synchronise. With a film, you're being dragged through the experience at 24 frames a second – that's a given. Even in the most complex films you couldn't – the reader – even if you've got someone saying this line of dialogue just as something happens in the background or something that makes a really ironic connection, then it's gonna flash by. People aren't gonna see it: if its in a Dave Gibbons-drawn comics page where they can sit and look at and absorb it at their own pace, then you can get layer upon layer of meaning and reference –
DW: Partly because it's self-paced.
AM: Yeah, because the reader is in complete control of the experience. It is a medium which not only combines the verbal and visual parts of our minds, but one where we are in complete control of the experience and where because it is so reader-friendly – you wanna check out this panel there to see if there's any connection – you can just flick back. You don't have to rewind the video and then pause it, you just flick back. Easy. And so it enables the comic book writer, the inventive writer, to utilize all those advantages and come up with really clever structures that would be lost in a film, but when they're frozen on the page where everyone can see how clever you are for all time, it works perfectly.
[The interview then abruptly ended with Dan and Dave madly scrambling into Andy's car in an (ultimately-successful) attempt to make the last train back to London. However, Alan graciously invited us back for a second visit as we were still in full flow.]
This interview is copyright me, Daniel Whiston, 2005; any errors are entirely my fault (having spoken to Alan after the interview was first published, he mentioned a few terms/references that I had transcribed incorrectly - but I never established what they were. He planned to revise the mistakes, but so far hasn't had time to); this interview previously appeared in Zarjaz.
PART TWO: 29/10/02
Having already met Alan in September, David Russell and I returned to the Moore-cave in October for a second fix. Once again Alan welcomed us with by now customary cups of tea into his inner sanctum. We cracked open the Dictaphone, and got down to business…
AM: What questions can I answer about The Craft for you?
DW: Last time we talked about the ‘toolbox': if you're gonna be reductionist about it, plot –
AM: Different areas of creative importance.
DW: What I thought might be interesting to talk about this time was a more type of ‘reportage' perspective: when you sit down to write a comic, is there an experience that is common to those different projects, those different pieces, those different works, that seems to come out over time? How does one start? I mean, this is a naïve question, but do you start with a fragment of dialogue, or an idea, or-
AM: Well, a story can start with anything. It can start with a fragment of dialogue, it can start with a sudden idea for a character, it can start with a purely intellectual musing upon some subject or other – the thing that unites all of these things is the endless frozen tundra of an empty page. This is the theme whether you're talking about writing a performance piece, a comic, a novel, whatever.
DW: I think we're talking about something from nothing.
AM: Yeah, this is the essential mystery of creation whether you're talking about an individual act of creation such as writing a poem, a story or a comic or whether you're talking about the creation of the universe. It's all something from nothing. You could say the same thing about thoughts entering our heads. Ideas. There's that white page somewhere there at the beginning of the process, whether you're talking in cosmological terms where the white page is the quantum vacuum. If you're a novelist then it is literally a white page.
Now, what you have to do is limit yourself. You cannot work in a complete conceptual void. Which is what the white page is. You have to start putting restrictions upon yourself. Now, if you're working commercially then you're lucky, in a way, because some of those restrictions will be pre-imposed. If you're asked to write a half-page story for a comic anthology – 2000AD – then you know certain things about the story, there are certain parameters. You know it's gonna be something in the kind of science fiction/fantasy area, so the genre is already imposed. You know it's gonna be, say, 5 pages long, which means that's probably 30 panels, tops, maybe a few more, a few less, but that's roundabout what you're looking at. These are all kinds of structural considerations which give you somewhere to start. They kind of mess up the white page, interestingly. Now you can then, I find, often achieve interesting results by…once you've got your initial start conditions, once you've got your basic shape – you know it's a five-page comic strip about science fiction – or a five- panel comic strip about a cat – a one-hour performance piece about William Blake – you've got your purely external parameters imposed – then, what is productive very often is to immediately come up with a bunch more shackles with which to bind yourself.
LEFT: Art by David Lloyd from V For Vendetta
Start imposing ridiculous little rules, just perhaps on a whim, or because you think they might help. You don't have to be too logical about this, although logic can help. I mean, as an example, when I was starting to write V for Vendetta , David Lloyd, the artist on the strip-
DW: At this point, if we pause the tape, can you tell us who V really is?
AM: Erm – no, I'm afraid. ( laughter ). If I knew, I would. But…V's exactly what he looks like: he's an idea, with a mask and a hat and a cloak. He's much more symbol than reality. When we were doing that, Dave Lloyd, at the outset, said that he'd got a feeling that comics would be better without sound effects and without thought-balloons. He made a very cogent case for this, he said that in real life, or in cinema, we don't have the luxury of knowing what people are thinking, we can't see a little cloud above peoples heads, we don't have access to their inner life. Now in literature we do, but I could see his point. I could see that there was something about thought-balloons which distanced the story from immediate reality.
DW: Maybe in a sense literature makes you God, you can know everything, or often books are written as though you know absolutely everything that's going on unless they're a mystery, whereas other mediums are more observatory…
AM: I'd got rid of the sound-effects, I'd got rid of the thought-balloons and I started to think well probably I could do with getting rid of the captions as well. I didn't completely banish captions until From Hell , which was very very restricting, and that's one of the reasons From Hell was so long.
DW: Do you think that had an impact on the density of the footnotes?
AM: It probably did – well that was mainly due to the nature of From Hell , in that it was a kind of historical reconstruction, so the footnotes seemed necessary to me. But it certainly added to the length, because when you're not using things like captions or thought-balloons for exposition, yes that'll give you greater verisimilitude, greater reality in the story that you're telling. People won't have so many barriers that are placed between them and complete identification with and immersion in the story. At the same time, it will take you two or three pages to do what you could have done in a few panels if you'd been using captions.
"The entire universe - for one thing -
only exists in your perceptions ..."
DR: Surely it can be better, like in the first version of Blade Runner where they've got the voice over…
AM: Oh, well that was always rubbish…I mean it was using a comic-book technique – and not very well – because it didn't actually add that much information to the scenes, except to the impenetrably dim members of the audience –
DR: And as you were saying any ambiguity destroyed the verisimilitude –
AM: Yeah, I don't like voiceovers in films anyway. Much as I'm a big fan of the Coen brothers, the cowboy narrator in The Big Lebowski was to my mind one of the major flaws of the film – it was a distancing device. Devices like that make it much more obvious to the reader that they are reading a story. If you don't have those obvious devices, then the reader can get completely sucked in. I suppose at its purest with comics you're talking about wordless comics – or comics with very few words – where people are drawn into the situation purely visually.
But you can come up with other stylistic limitations that will be to the benefit – generally – of the story. When I was writing Voice of the Fire , the last chapter, for some reason – because it was me narrating it I suddenly got very shy about using the word ‘I'. I think I got a bit self-conscious, I thought I hate it when I read pieces by people and it's: “I, I, I, me, my”, and I thought I don't want this to come over like that - although I am the narrator I want to be kind of invisible, I want to be an anonymous voice. So it's a first-person narrative without the first person. I don't use the word(s) I, me, my anywhere – and it's quite an interesting exercise, it does something to the prose, it leaves a kind of vacuum at the centre of the narrative that the reader can then inhabit. They can become the ‘I' of the story because there's no I, me, Alan Moore – there's no occupying entity in the story, so there's just a nice space left. But that was a sort of limitation that was self-imposed.
With the first story of Voice of the Fire I decided to alter the entire language to an approximation of the kind of language I imagined a Neolithic tribesman speaking in. Obviously it's in English, but I decided that based on my knowledge of Aboriginal languages, most of them seemed only to have a present tense, they don't have a past or future tense, they see the past and future as being somehow subsumed within the present. That's interesting. That's a different mindset to the modern mindset. And I also decided that they'd probably have a very very limited vocabulary. I tried – I think the vocabulary of the average Sun reader is something like 10,000 words. And I think that the vocabulary of the first story of Voice of the Fire - is around 500? It's very stripped-down. Which made it very difficult to read, almost incomprehensible to some people – there are some people who never got to read the rest of the book because they couldn't get past the impenetrable bramble hedge of that first chapter. But it was what I wanted to do, it got the effect that I was after.
So. You impose these preconditions upon the work. Then, when you've got a bit of an idea of what you're going to do, attend to its internal structure. You know what the limits of the perimeter fence are. You know that it's an hour of performance, or five pages of comics, or whatever. Then break it down. It's a novel, break it down into chapters, if it's a comic script, break it down into pages, if it's a performance piece like one of the Blake pieces, break it down into movements. Try and understand how the different pieces you've broken it down into fit together, what their purposes are, their functions. An easy textbook way of doing this is the kind of standard Hollywood three-act drama, your beginning, your middle and your end where you've got plot points placed a third of the way through, two-thirds of the way through and then, the big climax, right at the end. And yeah, you can see that – you watch most Hollywood films, say they're about two hours long, then about 40 minutes in, something decisive will happen, and then about 80 minutes in, something that completely turns the story around and that you never expected will happen, and at the end of the film you'll have the climax, the payoff, where everything will be resolved. Unless it's Mulholland Drive and he's David Lynch and he doesn't have to follow making fucking sense.
So what you're doing is, you start out with this white tundra, and then you erect fine and finer, more and more detailed levels of structure. And there's a certain amount of intuition in that, which is something which is not really quantifiable, but which comes with practice. You'll start to develop a personal aesthetic as to the kind of shape of the stories that you wanna do. You'll start to realise that - doing something this way – you can get results, but it's manipulative. It's trying to jerk people's emotions around. And that that doesn't feel right. So you'll kind of modify the way you approach emotional scenes… you'll perhaps decide that there's greater power in keeping more in reserve, in soft-peddling, in leaving a lot unsaid. Let it sort of detonate in the readers mind a few moments later. There's benefits to all these approaches. And they will all shape the thousands of creative decisions that you're gonna make, probably in the course of even a short work. And then, you know, it's sort of, er –
DW: Sorry to interrupt, but it sounds like you're saying – to someone who's not a very practiced creative person – that it's something to do with clarifying and developing an emotional position on your work, how you interact with those worlds you conjure up, in a way that feels right…
AM: Well, emotional position is part of it, but as an individual you are not your emotions, neither are you your intellect. These are things that you have . They're not things that you are . Therefore you have to start to become aware of the different requirements that human beings have, the different areas that they like to be satisfied in.
DW: That's what I meant by becoming aware…
AM: Yes. Which means becoming aware of yourself. I mean, as a writer you're gonna have to understand pretty much the whole universe. But the best place to start is by understanding the inner universe. The entire universe – for one thing – only exists in your perceptions. That's all you're gonna see of it. To all practical intents and purposes this is purely some kind of lightshow that's being put on in the kind of neurons in our brain. The whole of reality. So. To understand the universe there's worse advice than that which was carved above the shrine of the Delphi oracle. Where it just said: “Know thyself”. Understand yourself. Know thyself is a magical goal, but like I say to me there is very little difference between magic and creative art in any sense – the laws of one apply perfectly well to the other.
BELOW: Diagram of the Kabbalah
Now, coming to understand yourself – again, reductionism is a useful tool. In Kabbalah, you've got the lowest spheres of the Kabbalah (at this point Alan turns around and is explaining a diagram hung on the wall of the room) this sphere – the lowest sphere for those who are listening to the tape and can't see what I'm doing – the lowest sphere of the Kabbalah relates purely to the physical realm – that is the realm of the body and the physical world surrounding the body. We all have a body but we are not – whatever the materialists would have us believe – we are not our body. The next sphere up is the Lunar Sphere which is related to dreams, fantasy, romance, the imagination – and we all have an imagination, and we all have dreams, but we are not our dreams. They're a very important part of our makeup just as our body is, but they are not the sum total of us. This bit over on the left, the bottom of the left hand side of the tree is the Sphere of Mercury, that is the sphere of intellect. We all have intellect and thus our intellect has demands, just as our imaginations do, just as our bodies do.
The opposing sphere on the other side of the tree is the Sphere of Venus. This is to do with emotions and feelings, which we all have. The most important sphere on a human level is the Solar Sphere, which is the column three tiers up. That represents the soul, or the ‘higher self' if you prefer that sort of taxonomy, the guardian angel, the self, as in ‘know thy self', I mean the Delphi Oracle, it was an oracle to Apollo who, as the Sun God, goes there (points). What you have to do is develop each of those areas within yourself. Well, another way of looking at it, again using magical terminology, is that in magic it's said that that you shouldn't really commence magic until you've got your four magical weapons and I'd say yeah, that applies to art as well, it applies to writing.
ABOVE: Art from Promethea 17 , by J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray and Jeromy Cox
The four magical weapons are the wand, the sword, the cup and the coin. The coin represents the earthly, material things – the body. Yeah, you've got to be materially grounded, you've got to understand the material world. You've got to understand the urges of the flesh. You've got to understand how all of this works on a hard, practical, earthly level. You need your coin.
The sword represents intellect and discrimination, both of which are faculties you need. You need to be able to tell a good idea from a bad idea. Discrimination is the most powerful tool. To have the intellectual discrimination to be able to say: “This idea doesn't work because of this, this and this, this idea could work if we did this, this and this”. That's really very useful. Don't leave home without your sword – your intellect.
The wand is the will. This is the drive – whatever that is – in each individual. It is something above intellect, it's above emotion, it is the soul, the will, the highest self, the thing that drives high art. High art is nothing to do with the lower personality. It's not to do with fight and flight, fighting and fucking, eating, surviving – it's got something higher behind it. That's what wands are.
If you have all three of these things but don't have the cup, which is compassion, then no. Yeah, you'll be incredibly clever, you'll be incredibly motivated and you'll be incredibly materially solid, but without the compassion that the cup represents, you'll also be a monster.
So you'll need all four of these things, and that is true whether you're a human being, a magician or a writer. You need to have these things balanced. Well, for me, I like to think that the people reading my stories are going to find them satisfying upon a material level, they're going to work as stories about real people in a real world. That is the plot, I suppose. Does the story work on a material level – could these things actually happen in a material universe? So yeah, attending to material things, or the world of coins, or whatever, that's the plot level, if you like.
The level of swords, of intellect, what I wanna know is, ok, if the plot works that's not enough. I mean, anybody can think of a plot. A story. But to make it really work as a story, its gotta have, obviously, does it work intellectually? Is this stuff interesting to a reasonably developed intellect? And yeah, that's important. Not just: “Does it satisfy the plot demands of the lowest level of audience comprehension”, but is it going to tickle their intellect, is it gonna give them new thoughts? If it's just clever then…ah shit, you could end up like Will Self, or next thing you know you'll be doing restaurant reviews, smoking smack in the toilet of John Major's plane…I dunno, this is my personal choice again, but I find some authors like Martin Amis or like Will Self, I find them overly impressed by their own cleverness, and I sometimes find it a very brittle sort of cleverness that doesn't actually have a great deal of heart behind it.
It's important to satisfy your readers emotionally – that doesn't mean that you have to pile of the violins, tug the heartstrings, have Little Nell dying on every page, that's not the way to do it, that's manipulative and mawkish – that's reactive emotion, its not a true feeling.
I mean, as human beings we tend to have feelings that come from inside ourselves, and then there are reactive emotions – someone says: “Boo!”, we get scared, somebody says: “I love you”, we say: “Aaahh”. These are reactions. They might have nothing to do with our true feelings. Someone says: “Grrrr”, we get angry. You know. Pfah! So you need to connect with whatever your real feelings about things are. If you say you love your girlfriend, if you say you love your kids, what the fuck do you mean, exactly? What do you mean by that word, if you bandy it around? And that'll take some thinking about, that'll last for about ten or fifteen years. But these are things which are universal, they need to be explored. You know, Edmund Hilary: “Because it's there”.
These are the big issues of human existence. And you need to have all these elements of your personality balanced, and you also need to have all of these elements apparent in your writing, if you want it to come across as a balanced thing, you need it to make plot sense on a material level, you need it to be an interesting intellectual structure with interesting intellectual ideas to satisfy people's intellect, you need it to have emotional resonance and depth to give it humanity and warmth, and a kind of a beating heart, rather than to be a cold piece of artifice. Which I suppose, that's probably down to characterisation, you want to put characterisation at that particular point in this writing Kabbalah. The emotional level – that's probably down to the characterisation.
And, it needs to be about something. There needs to be some theme. Theme – that would be the solar centre, that would be the soul – you know, the book's gotta have a heart. That is its emotional content, whether it does resonate, emotionally, so it's gotta have a soul. The soul is the theme, it's what it's about. Is it about something that's big, or important enough? Amongst my own work, The Killing Joke where Batman versus The Joker. Yeah, there's loads of emotion layered on there. It's quite clever. The plot works, on a material level. But it's not about anything, it's not about anything of human importance, it's about Batman and The Joker and you're never gonna meet anybody like Batman and The Joker. It's of no use to you as a human being. It's one of the works – there's some very good things about it, but it's lacking something, and it's lacking soul. It's not got the thematic drive that say Watchmen has, which I was doing at the same time. That was my big mistake. I was doing Dark Knight – I was doing The Killing Joke at the same time as I was doing Watchmen .
“It was about its own structure. It was about a certain way of viewing reality…”
The approach that I was bringing to bear upon Watchmen - which had a much more important and universal human theme running through it – I brought back to bear upon a Batman-Joker story, and there was nothing there to support that kind of weight. So yes, purpose, theme, something that the whole work – whether it's a short, 5-page story or whether it's a 500-page epic: something that this is about.
DW: So what was Watchmen about?
ABOVE/BELOW: Details from Watchmen , art by Dave Gibbons
AM: Well, Watchmen was about a number of things. It started off as a silly-ass superhero story. We wanted to do a superhero story where we saw what would happen if you'd got a group of superheroes existing in a credible, real world, and what if these were credible, real characters emotionally-speaking, or at least as credible as we can make them. I suppose that was the basic premise – we thought we might get a darker than usual, grittier than usual superhero story out of it.
We had got to round about the third issue when all of a sudden we started to realise that there was something growing out of the storytelling that we hadn't really anticipated. There was something happening within the structure of the story – slightly interesting sparks, coming to life – I remember the actual page very clearly, it was the first page of the third issue? Where as the opening scene I wanted a bit of vox pop – you know, what's going on with the man on the street, so we'd got a scene with the news vendor sitting there at his little shack, there's a little boy sitting against the electric hydrant, reading a comic, across the street there's people putting up a fallout shelter notice – I thought: “People putting up fallout shelter notices, that's kind of ominous, that sets a tone”. We started off with a close-up, I decided to pull back from a tight close-up of the radiation symbol on the fallout shelter sign. In the first drawing I did of the close-up of black and yellow, I thought: “Actually, that kind of looks a little bit like a very stylised picture of a black ship, so maybe if I wrote a caption from the pirate comic that the little boy is reading, that would reinforce the reader's identification with this black and yellow shape, as being a black ship seen against a yellow sky…and then I'll also have some balloon from the off-panel news-vendor that will have some resonance with the content of this pirate caption, which is mainly about war. Piracy. Death”.
So I had the newsvendor making a comment about the possibility of a forthcoming nuclear war, and as we continued to pull back, we continued with the imagery – the pirate captions, the dialogue of the news vendor – all of these things are starting to strike sparks off of each other, we noticed. And yes, Watchmen came to be about power. About power and about the idea of the superman manifest within society. Dr. Manhattan is pretty openly – I mean his name is related to the Manhattan Project, he's pretty obviously a walking bomb. There's more to him than that, but he is one level of human power. The other characters who are all dealing with this world in their own different ways – the way that Watchmen fitted together, it was about power, but it's about a lot of things. What I eventually came to the conclusion of about Watchmen was that the most important thing in it, was its structure. And I think, at the end, that Watchmen's structure was what it was about. It was about its own structure. It was about a certain way of viewing reality. It was about a kind of perception which I think was perhaps not as prominent in 1985 as it is now, and as I think it will be in the near future. It's not a linear perception of things that we do increasingly have in the 21 st century.
DW: There's a quote from Dr. Manhattan that seems to capture that perfectly: “Time is a multi-faceted construct that human beings insist on viewing one surface at a time”.
ABOVE/BELOW: Details from Watchmen , art by Dave Gibbons
AM: Yeah, that's it…I mean, when Isaac Newton came up with the theory of gravity, nobody understood it. Nobody understood the theory of gravity. Then, given enough time, quite a few people did, and now, pretty much everybody understands the theory of gravity. Einstein, when he came out with his theory of relativity, there were probably five people in the world who had the first idea what he was talking about. Now, not everybody in the world understands Einstein, but there are thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people probably, who've at least heard of the theory of relativity and have some vague idea of what it entails. What I'm saying is, it takes us a while to catch up with…
DW:…the guys at the front…
AM:…yeah, the guys at the front, who are actually shaping our view of reality. At the moment, quantum physics suggests all sorts of interesting possibilities for looking at reality. We're nowhere near catching up with that yet, however, we catch up quicker than we did in the past because things are generally speeding up. Our technology acts as a kind of engine that speeds up our perceptions. There's probably been more breakthroughs probably in the last 18 months than there have been in the whole of world history. And it gets faster.
But I think with Watchmen the way that we were structuring reality, it wasn't from the perspective of one person, it wasn't from an omniscient Godlike perspective, it was multiple viewpoints. All of the different characters in Watchmen have got a completely different view of the world. Dr. Manhattan has this kind of dispassionate quantum view, Rorschach has got this fierce, morally-driven kind of psychotic view that is…something you could imagine people believing. Certain people. I might even believe some of those things myself on a particularly bad morning. The Comedian has got a particular view of the world, Nite-Owl – he's got a largely romantic view of the world. All of these – none of them are presented as being more true than the others. We're not sort of saying: “And yes, Dr. Manhattan's view of the world is the right one”. Or yes, Ozymandias' view of the world is the right one.
DR: What about Nils Bohr's ‘Greater and Lesser truths'?
AM: Yeah, he was a good one, Nils Bohr – ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation' .
DW: It's a good play.
AM: Is there a play of it?
DW: ‘Copenhagen' – Michael Frayn.
AM: Ah right, I wasn't aware of that, I was just talking about the actual Copenhagen interpretation of Nils Bohr when he first made it. I didn't know they'd made a play of it.
DW: The play uses the metaphor – the structure of the uncertainty principle – in terms of the impossibility of knowing about a conversation between Nils Bohr and a German colleague of his – about interpreting history –
AM: Well, if I interpreted the Copenhagen Interpretation correctly I think that at root it seemed to say that all of our observations – be they of remote astronomical events or of the hidden quanta - can only be, in the end result, observations of our own thought processes. I think I said in Voice of the Fire that he came up with that in the Copenhagen brewery – the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, where I presume they had parties and things – well, it's a haunting notion that, and hard to write off as the product of a special brew too many.
But these are viewpoints that we're going to have to take on board. The same thing's true of fractal maths. When I did the abortive Big Numbers I could think of new possibilities for viewing human society - human groupings – a healthier way. I could see possibilities in fractal maths – a new way of looking at how humans interact. And these are things I think it is important – vital – that we try and assimilate, these new options that we're provided with, new ways to live, new ways to think.
We obviously have, as a species, a number of problems at this current time. The only way I can see for us to get round them is thinking our way round them – I can't see us spending our way round them, we're not going to be able to bomb our way around them. I could be wrong, maybe we can spend and bomb our way around them, but I would say on balance that if we're gonna get round them at all, we're gonna have to think our way around them, and that is gonna need new forms of thinking. I don't know what they are, but I'd just say let's try some of the options, and see if anything interesting comes up. So, Watchmen started off as a grim superhero story, and ended up as a multi-layered metaphor for the effects of power upon society. But at the end of the day I think what Watchmen was about was its own structure, it was about the way in which Watchmen viewed reality, it was suggesting new ways in which to view reality.
The Dr. Manhattan sequence where he views time as a kind of solid with past and future present in any moment – that was very interesting to write, that was very liberating to write. You've got I myself having to adopt that viewpoint, and realising what a lot of poetry it brought to normal human existence. One of the benefits of fiction, especially of fantasy fiction, is that is does enable us to put on these extravagant clothes. It enables us to do thought experiments. It enables us to imagine ourselves to extremes and to perhaps understand ourselves a little better by running through: “What is this? What would I think if this happened? What would I do if this happened?”. Running through these little scenarios, I think that can be useful. It might even be the point of art full stop. I mean, it's gotta be for something, right?
DW: When you were talking about Dr. Manhattan viewing time as a solid object, the reader sees it that way too, and maybe as you say it is a way of letting us see something that we couldn't see with our eyes by looking out the window…
AM: Like I say, maybe when we've caught up with quantum theory, maybe when we've caught up with Stephen Hawking, maybe when we've caught up with some of the shit I read about in New Scientist every week, when we've assimilated that to the extent that we understand apples falling from trees, who's to say that our perception of time wouldn't change? I mean, if I understand Stephen Hawking, unless I've misread A Brief History of Time (laughter), the whole of spacetime, if it came into existence in the Big Bang, that was the whole of time, not just the whole of space that came into being and it all came into being inextricably linked together, then that means space time is a kind of giant football – more like a rugby ball, Big Bang at one end, Big Crunch at the other – and all the moments in-between are all co-existing in this one big hyper moment of space-time. Now, I can accept that, intellectually, but to really know it, in the same way as apples fall from trees, to have it as an observable reality…sometimes I can almost get there. I've got a pretty good memory, and I've had odd premonitions from time to time the same way everybody does, never about anything significant, enough to strike a little eerie chord, and I came to think that time was happening all at once, and it's only our conscious perceptions that arrange it all into a linear sequence.
And there by exploring the consciousness of the fictional Dr. Manhattan I can suggest to the reader what such a consciousness might be like. And Swamp Thing , where I was actually trying to think my way into: “What would a mass vegetable consciousness be like? What would the concerns of a vegetable consciousness be? What would its emotional range be?”. All these things are useful – or potentially useful – tools for getting people to understand natural phenomena from the inside, in the way that no other tool short of fantasy really can allow people to be put into those spaces and those mindsets.
DW: Going back to what you were saying about the underlying theme of Watchmen being its own structure, the name suggests that now I come to think of it: “Watch-men”, men of clockwork, men of structure…
AM: Also, there are actual bits in it which are actually referring to ways of reading Watchmen , I mean, Dr. Manhattan's perceptions, they are a key to the actual structure of Watchmen . In Watchmen …I mean just like that football structure of space-time, a book has the future of its characters, when it's closed, a few small inches away from the present of its characters – all the moments within that story are contained within the two covers, so we tried to make Watchmen structured so that images recur all the way through, linking the present with the past and the future, giving foreshadowings of things that have yet to come, giving echoes of things that have already happened. So, yeah, Dr. Manhattan's perceptions are one key to reading Watchmen . Adrian Veidt with his multiple television screens, which is another key to reading Watchmen . Adrian Veidt is watching six channels at once and so, at various points in Watchmen , are the readers. It's multi-channel viewing. You're watching a pirate story, you're watching a conversation on a street corner, you're listening to symbolic dialogue, you're seeing little symbols moving around. Both of those are ways of reading Watchmen that are encoded within the text of Watchmen itself.
DW: You started off by counter pointing that with The Killing Joke which you thought maybe didn't work as well…
AM: ‘Cos Watchmen has got a theme, a soul, a central reason for being. The Killing Joke was a Batman story. With the best will in the world, we'd designed the characters in Watchmen to kind of – or at least the way they developed – they were capable of carrying the weight of the narrative. They were interesting characters in their own right, people wanted to find out what was going to happen to Rorschach or to Dan and Laurie or whatever so it didn't become oppressive, the structure, the mechanics of the storytelling, the clockwork…the ticking of the clockwork didn't drown out the story. Whereas Batman and The Joker, they were designed in the late 1930's, early 1940's…
Left: Cover to The Killing Joke, art by Brian Bolland
DW: But what was it that you thought you were getting right with The Killing Joke that looking back you weren't? How do you differentiate those two experiences? What was it you think you did wrong with The Killing Joke?
AM: Like I said a few moments ago, the problem with The Killing Joke was that I was writing it at the same time as I was writing Watchmen and there was leakage between one narrative and another. I was bringing to bear the mindset of Watchmen upon characters and situations that were too slight to bear them. What I should have done, if I hadn't been so immersed in writing Watchmen – well what I probably should have done is passed on writing Batman until I'd finished writing Watchmen – what I probably should have done is to have thought longer about the Batman story and tried to come up with a story that – just because The Killing Joke doesn't work doesn't mean that Batman's a bad character, I'm sure there are perfectly good stories you could tell about Batman. The Killing Joke just wasn't one of them. What I should have done is to have thought more deeply about Batman as a character, what could be said honestly and effectively using that character, and then proceeded from there. But, on the other hand, a useful mistake. Because it irked me, I felt bad about The Killing Joke for a while. Not very satisfied with it.
And so I had to sit down and think: “Why? Why does this book not satisfy me?” Brian's art's lovely, you know it's better than most of the post-modern Batman books…”
DW: Arkham Asylum…
AM: Well I wasn't gonna mention any names…but yeah, I didn't really like Arkham Asylum .
DW: That's interesting, because that didn't seem to work as much as anything I've read…and I'm not sure why.
AM: Not to slag anyone off, but at the time, I met Dave McKean after Arkham Asylum came out, always a difficult time, the book's come out, by someone you know and get on with, and you don't happen to like it, then, you have to choose between honesty and diplomacy, and I remember saying to Dave McKean that I hadn't liked Arkham Asylum , I thought his art had been beautiful, lovely, but it was the story that the art was in service to…
DW: Perhaps it wasn't really a story…
AM: Well it wasn't much of a story, the story didn't really resonate for me on any level, and the fact that it had got Dave's beautiful sumptuous artwork appended to it, I said to Dave that it was like putting an exquisite golden frame – and I said your art is an exquisite golden frame, it is, it's exquisite – it's like putting that exquisite golden frame around a dog turd. I said it's not gonna make the dog turd look any better. In fact the dog turd can make the exquisite golden frame look a bit – an attempt to polish a turd. It's like, the artwork, if it's not in service to something which has depth, it can be the most gorgeous stuff in the world, and the more gorgeous it is, the sillier it will look. Because you'll be thinking: “Someone expended all this effort and created all this beauty on this story”. It's like the gap between the story and the art is vast.
DW: That brings me to something I'd like to ask, which is, it's a collaborative medium, unless you're a writer-artist. How do you see the relationship between writer and artist? I mean, some writer-artists have stated that they see no place for a writer who isn't also an artist in the medium – for example Dan Jurgens…
AM: I don't think I know who he is…he wrote The Death of Superman ? Yeah, yeah (smiles) …a valid opinion…
DW: But that's not what I want to talk about at any length…
AM:…Got plenty of artists that can't write…not mentioning Dan Jurgens in any way of course…
DW: Bit more of an auteur really…
AM: An auteur. Yes, I think he probably is…
DW: How you do you see the relationship of writing for an artist, which is not the most common writing experience?
AM: It's a good question, and I'd say that of all my talents, working in the comics industry, my talent for collaboration is my most prized and probably my most highly-defined and adapted-
DW: That's interesting, because many people would see you as a writer rather than-
AM: One of the things that I learned very early on was – I'm very perceptive when it comes to comics artists – I pride myself on – I can look at an artist's work, and not only see why it's good, I can also see things that that artist could do that not even the artist knows that they could do – I can see possibilities, you know, a quality in someone's art, if you could bring it out, marry it to the right story, let them run riot with this particular thing that they do. So what I do, when I, writing a story – OK, back when I used to write for 2000AD and I didn't know who would be drawing it a lot of the time, then you have to write an artist-proof script. You put in all the details you can think of and you try and make it as entertaining and as exciting for the artist as possible, so that even if they're not inspired at all, maybe once they've read your story they'll want to give it just that extra little bit of effort.
Now if you're writing for an artist where you do know who they are, it all becomes a lot easier. You think in terms of pleasing the artist first. It's like – I could give examples from any of the works I've done – errr – Lost Girls . With that, me and Melinda we both knew that we wanted to do an erotic piece of serious fiction. When we were casting around for how to do it I mean I was looking at Melinda's work, it was the first time that I'd seen her colour work, and I suddenly thought: “This colour work, this soft crayon work, it's beautiful, it looks like children's illustrations so therefore it looks fake”. Her erotic work is really wild. If you were to do the erotic stuff in this beautiful textured and layered coloured crayon, that would be really subversive, you could get away with anything, no matter how grotesque or disgusting it might sound, that enough layered coloured crayon, prismatic coloured crayon, and it's gonna look like an illustration from The Butterfly Ball or something like that, it's gonna look like a children's favourite.
So, also by that time I'd realised that Melinda was quite good at, and seemed to enjoy, pastiching other artists' styles – she could do a pretty good Egon Schiele, a pretty good Beardsley, a pretty good Mucker, so all right, maybe I could work that into the book in some way, something that would give her the opportunity to do those things I know that she'd like. These things have all shaped, the content and the storytelling of Lost Girls .
With Promethea , Jim Williams told me, early on, he really likes symmetry in a spread layout, he really likes working with spreads. So, the unit for most of my comics is the page, the unit for Promethea is the spread, I compose each in two-page bursts, and work out: “Is there anything interesting visually we can do with this spread?” So, in all instances…it's a bit like circus horses. The reason the circus horses dancing to the music works so well is that that's not what's really going on. The band are playing along with the horses. The band are playing along with the random capering of the horses, and it appears like a beautifully synchronised piece of dance. That's something like what happens when I'm working with an artist. I am looking at this capricious, prancing, wonderful style, whether that's Oscar Zarate's or Kevin O'Neill's or whatever, and I'm thinking: “What sort of music can I put to this capering, this dancing, that'll make sense of it and will bring out its best qualities?”
Because if the artist is enjoying it they're going to pour all their energy and enthusiasm into it, which is gonna give the work a life you could never have achieved on your own. So yeah, collaboration is vital and it's done by understanding the person you're working with. So, develop your perceptions and sublimate your work to the artist. It's like dancing or sex or – both of those are decent metaphors. You don't lead when your partner's leading. You sort of have to kind of get into a rhythm, pull back, let the other person do the solo, then maybe they pull back and let you do a bit of a solo…when you get into the right sort of tempo then a good story will generally be the result.
DW: One of the very crude distinctions between different schools of comics scriptwriting is to label one the plot-driven approach-
AM: The Marvel school.
DW: Do you think it's accurate – and if so what it says about writing and about the medium - that the more you do write full-script and the more closely you design the comic from a writing/ideas/concepts point of view, the less visible the collaboration is – the more seamless the collaboration is - between writer and artist, but also the more there is of the reader fully immersing themselves in the story, and not being aware of “Oh, I'm reading a comic”, not having a huge explanatory text box saying: “Meanwhile, on the other side of town…”
AM: Exactly. I'd say that one of the greatest compliments I've ever had for my work was when Terry Hillier, reading the first few episodes of From Hell , commented to Eddie Campbell that: “It reads like the work of one person”. Perfect. That's what I'm aiming for with everybody. I want it to read so naturally that it will be just the work of one person. But, the Marvel-style approach, this started with Smilin' Stan Lee, Stan ‘The man' Lee, and I've gotta say, and this is only my opinion having seen Jack Kirby's pencils, I think that the process went something like this:
Stan Lee comes up with an idea: “Right, next issue of The Fantastic Four , like, what if there's some really big powerful threat from space, sort of – or according to some people, what if in the next issue, the FF – the Fantastic Four – fight God”. And Jack Kirby goes away, and he thinks: “Galactus…Galactus eats planets…and he's got this herald…and it's this silver guy on a surfboard and he goes before him…and this guy's so frightening that solar systems will switch off their suns so that he doesn't notice them, they'll black out their entire galaxies so that he'll pass them by, and yeah, The Watcher, he intervenes and fills the Earth's sky with illusions to keep this creature away, but it doesn't work…”. And you've got Kirby, he'd pencil five pages a day…he just wasn't human. He'd just sit there pencilling five pages a day, six pages a day, nine pages a day, and in every panel – so he'd be breaking it down into stories, he'd be breaking it down into a continuity of images, he'd be inventing the characters, he'd be writing the dialogue suggestions – very crude, very quick, but sometimes quite detailed. Then this would go to Stan Lee, who would look at the story that Jack Kirby had written , would dialogue it in his own unique way – he would put in a lot of ‘thees', ‘thous', ‘face front true believers', footnotes, and then it would go out as ‘ Fantastic Four created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby', but it was only one of them who had a share of the action on the characters, and that was…the smiling one. And that's probably why he was smiling, come to think about it.
And the Marvel method – I've heard people – Archie Goodwin, who was a lovely man, a great comic writer and somebody I respected a great deal – I once said to him: “I can't see any advantage in the Marvel method”. And he said: “Well, sometimes it allows for serendipity”. That may be true. But I would say that it would be so infrequent – and I mean looking at the vast output of Marvel comics during the last thirty years of the twentieth century – those moments of serendipity were pretty few and far between. I'd say that the disadvantages of the method outweigh whatever slender advantages there might be. It's lazy. I've gotta say, it's lazy. And it leads to homogenous product because think about it - I mean, if the artist has no real idea what anyone's gonna be saying in a particular panel, then how can he put a particular emotion on their faces while they're saying it? So you have to go for this kind of – the emotional range of Marvel characters is generally ‘mouth open – mouth closed'. Whereas with me, if I spec a page –
DW: Maybe that's why they wear masks…
AM: Well, that could be it. It's not helped by the fact that all the main Marvel characters all look like the same person with different hair colours. So do the female characters. It's a process of homogenisation, so it should be resisted. To me – I mean, I have worked close to Marvel style, when we were doing the 1963 pastiches. But even then it wouldn't be me saying to Rick Veitch or Steve Bissette: “Yeah, and he fights a cockroach kind of guy in this issue, now go away and draw me the story”. (laughter). I was doing exactly the same things as I always do – I was breaking it down into tiny little pictures – the only difference was that I was phoning through the descriptions to Rick and Steve over the phone: “Yeah alright, first page, five panels, in the first panel this happens and this happens, do you understand?”, and Rick would say: “Yeah yeah, I've got that, that looks great”. “Right, second panel overhead shot, we're looking down”. Then they'd draw the pencils, send them to me and I'd dialogue them, and I'd have a vague idea of the type of dialogue that would be appropriate even when I was drawing the pictures, so it was a more streamlined – it was closer to the Marvel method but actually it was just a more streamlined version of my normal method. So yeah, I really think that if a comic's gonna have a writer then the writer should write. I think that most of the writers I admire in comics, they put the work in. Neil Gaiman, his scripts are about halfway between mine and – in terms of length and detail – he's about halfway between me and average comics scriptwriters. For average comics scriptwriters a page of comics is probably gonna be a page of manuscript, whereas for me it's at the very minimum a page of comics is two pages of manuscript, sometimes three. On one of those Prometheas , two pages of comic took me three pages to write for Jim Williams…but I think it's worth it, and I think that the results show. There's things I've done in comics that would not have been possible – I mean that Promethea 12 , tying in Tarot cards and all the rest of it, there's no way that could have been done other than with a very detailed full script.
“It's like putting that exquisite golden frame
around a dog turd…”
DW: What does that say about comics – it's almost paradoxical - that they're most successful in their own terms when the person who the average man in the street would think was in the driving seat – the artist – is in fact written for to a larger extent?
AM: Well, I think it says that comics are – I mean, alright, some of the best creators in comics have been writer-artists. The majority of comics artists – some of the best ones, Harvey Kurtzman, artist-writer, Will Eisner, artist-writer, Frank Miller – well, Dark Knight one was good, not so sure about Dark Knight two, but yeah when Frank was cooking, he was a good artist-writer. Art Spiegelman, who I believe has been very vocal about – at least in the past – how the mainstream industry, mainstream comics could produce nothing of worth, because it was not the work of one individual, it was a conveyor-belt process, and thus soulless. I've got a great deal of respect for Art Spiegelman as an intellect, but I think he's wrong on that one.
I mean, it depends how you use the collaboration process, I'm sure it can be soulless, I'm sure it can be a conveyor belt, but conveyor belt does not begin to describe the collaboration between me, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins on Watchmen , it doesn't really describe the collaboration between me, John Williams, Mick Gray, Jeremy Higgins and Todd Klein on Promethea . These are – everybody's putting in ideas, and I'm working trying to think of new colouring effects for Jeremy to try out, I'm trying to think of what to do with the lettering this issue, anything new that I can come up with to bedevil Todd this issue, make him work for his money. There's nothing soulless about the way that I approach collaboration – the exact opposite, I try to involve everybody so we've got everybody's energies pouring wholeheartedly into the book, because it is what they most want to do. And then you've got all of those energies in one harness, harnessed to one project, and you can take the story to lengths you would not have imagined possible.
DR: So would you typically hook up with an artist before you begin work on a story?
AM: Well, generally if possible. Sometimes I'll have the idea for the story – like with From Hell I had the idea for the story and thought: “What artist would be perfect for this?” And I thought about it and I realised with From Hell you needed an artist who was able to take a very low-key approach to something, because I didn't want it to be a horror story in the comic book sense, I wanted it to have a much more profound horror to it, and that needed somebody who could conjure up a much more believable, mundane everyday reality, and who'd got pretty subtle, low-key sensibilities. Eddie was perfect.
ABOVE: Detail from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol 2, Issue 5, art by Kev O'Neill
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , when I was musing about: “Who would be the perfect artist for this?”. Once the image of Kevin O'Neill's art came into my mind I knew that that would be exactly right. The kind of cartoonish, English caricature quality in Kevin's work would really give a lot of bounce and energy to the script – it would dispel the heaviness of the Victorian setting, it would – just Kevin's sense of design would bring such a lot to the script. These were things where I came up with the idea first as opposed to Watchmen , where me and Dave sat down with the idea of doing something together and let it evolve from there, but with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or From Hell , the idea was there first and then I kind of picked those artists, because they seemed - according to my instincts, my intuitions, to be the perfect ones for the job.
Collaborations all have a different nature, they all work in different ways, because any two individuals are gonna have a different chemistry between them. You have to be sensitive to the person that you're working with and they have to be sensitive to you, to a certain degree. And you try to work as one organism, as best as possible, and it is possible.
“Some of the things that I put my readers through are pretty extreme…”
DW: What are the pitfalls to collaboration?
AM: Well, don't get an attitude. Don't suddenly decide that the way to make your mark upon the industry is to stamp your presence over every story indelibly. I mean, I've seen some terrible examples within the industry of an artist and writer at war-
DW: Was it Warren Ellis?
AM: I was thinking more about some of the American books I'd seen, where you had an artist with a certain amount of fan popularity, you had a writer with a certain amount of fan popularity, and you can see instances where the writer had decided that the artist was getting too much attention and that he wasn't getting enough, so the writer had covered as much of the artist's work as possible with huge word balloons (laughter) , and then the artist will start getting revenge…and it's not a collaboration, it's a war. I don't know whether – I mean I speak to Warren, and he always seems a polite, well-mannered young man when I speak to him, maybe he's trying to sound a bit-
DW: I think what he was talking about something quite specific where he'd written something and the artist hadn't liked it and decided to draw something else…
AM: I've never had that happen. Yeah, but the thing is is that I've seen some of Warren's scripts. Warren's scripts aren't very long. I mean I've seen…Avatar Comics brought out something called Bad World that Warren had done…I mean if you look at Warren's scripts, there's not a lot on dialogue, they're not dialogue-heavy, shall we say. In this Bad World thing they actually reprinted the scripts to all three issues in the back section of the third issue. These were the full scripts. It was one panel per page and there was a little caption – no, one panel per spread I think – with a terse little caption talking about it. And OK, if that's how Warren likes to work, that's fine, but if he does have trouble with artists suddenly deciding that they're gonna be a bit creative with the last quarter of a comic or something…I mean, I've never had that problem. It might be that if you're gonna be very very loose with your instructions to the artists, perhaps you've not got quite as much room to complain if they take that as you giving them a long reign.
I mean, I always in my scripts will give instructions saying: “Look, despite the fact that there's all this previous detail, if you've got a better way of doing this panel, then as long as you basically understand the effect I was going for here and can think of a better way to achieve it, then please do, I'm counting on you, if you've got a better idea than me to throw it in, because that'll make the story better”. Not many people take me up on it, but some do. Jim Williams'll change things because he'll suddenly see that actually these five panels could be arranged more interestingly and still have the same story power, if he did it like this. And I try to give them complete leeway, so they've got as much support as they need if they haven't really got an idea of how to do the page, but it's not a burden. They've also got as much freedom as they want, which I think is the best way to work with people generally, let alone create with collaborators. Give people the support that they need and the freedom that they want. Then you won't go far wrong.
It'll probably mean more work for you, but the end result is that your collaborators will feel that they're collaborating with you – if they feel you've done a good job for them, they're gonna want to do a good job for you. It becomes a very benign competitiveness that you can get into sometimes with comics, where you're trying to show off to each other. When the artist has read your script, liked it and then done an art job that has gone beyond your script, then a kind of benign and lovely gauntlet's been thrown down, and it's a kind of impetus to make your next script really knock the artist out, and then they match that, and so on. It's a good way of amping up the creative energy on a project.
DW: But you have to adequately specify what you require of your collaborator.
AM: Be clear. You can't be too clear. Whether in your actual script or your actual storytelling. If you're gonna have ambiguity in there, make sure you know why you're having ambiguity in there. Make sure you're not just saying it has ambiguity because you haven't actually figured out what it's about. There are plenty of reasons for using ambiguity, but one of them is laziness. Make sure that you're being as clear as you can be. I can't see any point in – some artists seem to produce something not very pleasant to read, and then they'll say it was meant to be challenging. Now, I like the work that I read to challenge me, I like it to expand my horizons. But that is the equivalent to a challenging debate, which I'm sure most of us would welcome. But if the artist or writer is trying to challenge me in the manner of an obnoxious street drunk, then that's a different sort of challenge and it's not something I particularly picked up the book for. If I'd wanted that, I'd have hung out in the taxi rank downtown on a Friday night at chucking out time.
Why were you trying to challenge your audience? What have they ever done to you? I prefer seduction, hypnosis, I don't want to scream at my audience and demand that they understand my gemlike pearls of wisdom. I once said that a good way to describe my approach to writing is that in the story, in the telling of it, the dialogue, the characters, I introduce myself to the reader, I talk to them interestingly, fascinatingly, calmingly, I get them to sort of follow me up the alleyways of the narrative until they are so far within it that they probably can't find their way out, and then you can do whatever you want to them.
Some of the things that I put my readers through are pretty extreme – I mean the Mary Kelly sequence in From Hell , it was very gruelling to write, it was very gruelling to draw, and I know that it was very gruelling to read for some people. Some people had to put the book down, it's an intense little scene. I couldn't have got the readers to look at that without the preceding 400 pages, or whatever it was. I had to get them to trust me. And I don't think I betrayed that trust. I had to get them to go with me into a horrible place-
DW: Well it was a story about Jack the Ripper…
AM: On the other hand, there are a lot of ways I could have done that scene and the lead-up to it that would have made it merely unpleasant. I mean, as it is, there is something terrible about it, which is good. If it had been merely unpleasant – a bloke cutting up a woman – than that would have let down the whole book and probably not done an awful lot for my reputation as a writer. I knew that if I was gonna have a scene that stark, that intense, then I needed to do an awful lot of groundwork, treading very carefully every step of the way until you finally throw open the doors and take the reader into that room, and say: “Right, this is the heart of the story”.
I think about the collaboration a lot, I also think about my relationship with the audience. These are the people I don't know, the people I can only vaguely imagine. But art, writing, surely one thing that all of this is is an attempt to communicate something. So why would you choose to communicate that which you wish to communicate less clearly, less powerfully? If you've got something to communicate, then you would want, I would think, to communicate it as clearly, as powerfully and as affectingly as possible. So in any communication there are two factors, there is the transmitter and the receiver. And you wanna make sure that the receiver receives the message that you were sending out with clarity, but at the same time you don't want it to be…insultingly simple.
“I'd say to anyone aspiring to be a writer: write what you like. Write what you have genuine enthusiasm for…”
(We then returned to a discussion of ‘signal to noise' in writing again, covering the same ground as was gone over previously, before moving on to fresh topics).
You could end up as a writer's writer, and that would be a terrible fate. What that means is you'd be a writer where all the other writers would say: “God, I wish I was as brilliant as him, and I'm glad I'm not as penniless as him”. I've known a few borderline – Kathy Acker was nearly a writer's writer, other writers would say: “Jesus, how does she do this stuff, these sentences are fucking fantastic…the way they sort of self-destruct…”. But she was not easy and she was not popular. Iain Sinclair, I think – yeah, let's go out on a limb – the finest writer currently working in the English language – Downriver , one of his best books, took him five years to write and he got 2000 quid for it, how many it sold I don't know, but probably not a lot. Most writers, even the very best ones, especially the very best ones, don't often make a living from it. You go into any branch of Waterstone's and 90% of those books on the shelves, unless you're talking about Catherine Cookson, Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer – the ‘giants' as I like to think of them – unless you're talking about them you're talking about someone who is a teacher, or a social worker, or works in a bookshop, or works as a lorry driver, you're doing something to pay the rent and then working into the small hours while the wife and kids are asleep. There's levels, there's levels to being a writer, and I think the thing to decide is the level you're happiest at. If you're happy writing pulp adventure stories then for God's sake write pulp adventure stories, and if there comes a point when you're no longer happy writing pulp adventure stories, try something else.
Don't think that you have to write – just because literary critics decided some time in the 19 th century that Jane Austen's comedy of manners was the only form of literature that could really be considered literature. Basically it's because her novels were about the habits of the class that could afford to buy books. They were about the habits of the class of people who were criticising the books. They were flattering. It was holding a mirror up to a particular strata of society – which included the critics – and they said: “Yes, our ways, our vanities, our funny little intrigues, this is the stuff of legend, the only stuff of legend. For God's sake don't write anything in genre. Don't write detective stories, because they're low and vulgar”. Even if you are Raymond Chandler, even if you are an extraordinarily beautiful and gifted writer. If you're writing detective stories, forget it. Ghost and horror stories, well we'll just about allow Poe, but no, on second thoughts, and certainly don't even consider people like Lovecraft, who couldn't write . Who had a ‘clumsy prose style'. Apparently. Clark Ashton Smith. Gaudy. Forget about him. Arthur Knacken. You're not gonna find these people anywhere in Melvyn Smith's list of 100 novels you simply must read. You're not gonna find any genre. You're mainly gonna find novels of manners. You're not gonna find any science fiction, even if it's H.G. Wells or Olaf Stapleton, because science fiction is a lower art form than the novel of manners.
I'd say to anyone aspiring to be a writer: write what you like. Write what you have genuine enthusiasm for. Don't write to get a Booker prize. Angela Carter, God bless her, always used to refer to ‘that sort of person' as ‘shortlist victims', and it's true. Michael Moorcock is never going to get a Booker Prize, but he's a better writer than 100% of writers who have won the Booker Prize over the last 20 years. But he's vulgar, he used to write comics, he used to write science-fantasy trilogies. In three weekends. On speed. He used to write the Talisman adventure libraries, he used to write Sexton Blake , along with Jack Trevor Story, another writer who will never be included in the canon of great British writers. Jack Trevor Story, one of our very best writers ever.
DR: Maybe in a hundred years…
AM: Nah, sadly not, he'll have been completely forgotten…he'll have been forgotten three times over by then. Yeah, the re-forgotten as Iain Sinclair calls them. People like Gerald Kersh, people like Jack Trevor Story, John Lodwick, people who are fine writers. Their books aren't in print anymore, nobodies concerned. I mean, Jack Trevor Story, I'm a big collector, I've got nearly all of them, which is difficult in this day and age. I've got all of the Horace Spurgeon Fenton trilogy, The Wind in the Snotty Gobble Tree . Marvellous. The Snotty Gobble Tree is the Yew tree, so called because of its sticky white poisonous berries. The Yew tree grows particularly well in graveyards, it thrives upon a human loam. So in a lot of cemeteries you get the Yew tree growing, or a ‘Snotty Gobble Tree'. So the title, The Wind in the Snotty Gobble Tree , it's funny, but it's also kind of poignant…it's talking about human life. Human life is just the wind in the Snotty Gobble Tree. The wind in the graveyard. He was very funny, Jack Trevor Story, very sad, poignant. There was someone who, after he died, suggested the Jack Trevor Story prize for literature, where the prize would be something like £200 and the only condition would be – say £500 to £1000 – and the only condition would be that after two weeks the recipient would have nothing to show for it. Which was pretty much the pattern of Jack Trevor Story's life. Whenever he got any payment, two weeks later he would have nothing to show for it.
But these are my heroes, these are the people I am particularly fond of, perversely fond of, people like David Lindsey, who wrote A Voyage to Arcturus , one of the most mystifying and brilliant British fantasy novels anywhere. Completely forgotten. Less forgotten, but still ignored, William Hope Hodgson, who wrote House on the Borderland , The Night Land , various other books…a visionary genius. But forgotten. There are all of these people, who because they were too cheerily vulgar, too proletarian, something like that, because they weren't well behaved enough , in literary terms. Because they seemed possessed, or intoxicated, or vulgar or rude, they weren't allowed in past the doormen, into the literary banquet going on. That was only for your Iris Murdochs, to your people who were on the list. There were a lot of people who didn't have the right kind of shoes on to get in. And those are the people I treasure the most, because they are the voices that are most in danger of being lost.
DW: I feel somewhat base bringing it back to comics yet again, but that might be an interesting point. At least within the English-language tradition, comics have been dominated by genre fiction, particularly the superhero genre which could be seen as even more ‘vulgar' than the ones you mentioned before. Without denigrating those genres, do you think because of this, comics writers have to ‘smuggle in' other themes?
AM: The beauty of a genre is in transcending it. It's like I was saying about putting limitations on yourself when we were talking right at the beginning.
DW: The blank page.
AM: The blank page. The genre is the straightjacket and you can do some nice Houdini tricks if you put on a restrictive enough genre. And you don't have to look very far to see some brilliant examples of that. The detective story genre in the hands of Mickey Spillane is dull – dire – not very interesting. But you get someone like Raymond Chandler who suddenly brings in this weary moral element, and genuine compassion and human insight, and he transcends the detective genre, and makes it something it wasn't before.
DW: And it's very hard to think of how that emotional range could have been expressed – better – in another…
AM: Well absolutely, it's difficult to see how it could have been expressed better in Pride and Prejudice , or a novel of manners, because he used the extremity of the detective situation – the isolation, the moral loneliness – as a counterpoint to this bleak image of a corrupt San Francisco he was painting. I think with my own work, with things like Watchmen , if they succeed it is because they transcend the superhero genre. They take it somewhere where it had not previously been. I'm not saying that every work I've ever done in superheroes has transcended the genre, but that is one of the main pleasures of genre. It's putting on a straitjacket and then making a big spectacular display of springing out of the straitjacket with no concealed lock picks or anything like that – underwater - with a hopeless genre. The more hopeless the genre the better, really, because people are gonna be more surprised if you do something good with it-
DW: Which puts comics writers in a privileged position in some ways…
AM: Well, if they are up to that particular act of aesthetic ju-jitsu, if they can actually turn the weight of negative expectation that is being hurled against them, by some crafty kind of ju-jitsu move, if they can turn that round and make that weight work for them….so it depends very much upon the writer and how they are viewing the kind of creative milieu they are working in. But yeah, for me I'm always quick to try and find the advantages in any situation, which can often be the apparent disadvantages. There's ways you can look at the disadvantages of a situation and see that they can be used as a kind of lever to spin the project in a completely different direction. If this is a problem, then how am I gonna get around that problem?
Pornography. Obviously there's a problem in how are you gonna do pornography that people are gonna respect and people are gonna like? I've read most of the feminist critiques of pornography, some of them I can dismiss fairly easily – Andrea Dworkin - some of them less easily. Some of them I don't wanna dismiss. I think they're perfectly valid. So, how do you produce a piece of red-hot pornography that answers these critiques? That avoids the pitfalls like that? These are all big problems, but the work you get out at the end can be all the better for the kinds of travails you've had to go through to get there.
So, have you got a last question, or anything like that?
DW: It's never good to end a conversation on a negative note, but if there's anything more you could recall that's a classic mistake, something you learned not to do early on, because you've spoken a lot about the positives…
AM: OK, a negative…a negative…what shouldn't you do…you shouldn't…you shouldn't come up with things that you shouldn't do. I'd say what you should do is probably make all the fucking mistakes that you are capable of. Don't make too many mistakes where it matters, but don't be afraid to try anything. Don't be afraid of failure, don't be afraid of trying. And if you do fail, nobody likes to fail so you probably won't either, but if you do fail that'll probably just give you the incentive – not to not try that thing again, but you'll have some idea of how next time, you could perhaps do it, and succeed. Some of my stories have been failures. In the American Gothic run on Swamp Thing , where I was trying to tie stock horror icons in with horrific aspects of contemporary society. I'd got the treatment of women tied in with the werewolf story, and I tried to do a story that tied in zombie imagery with a comment on racism – and it didn't really work. A valiant attempt, some lovely bits of writing in it, but I should have thought it through more, I ended up not quite saying what I'd wanted to say, it was muddy, ambiguous – a failure. And like I say, I don't like failure, so I had to try and analyse what I'd done wrong and work out ways that I could avoid making it again.
So, don't be afraid of failing – once or twice – because that can be a big learning experience. If you don't fail once or twice, you're probably not reaching far enough, you're not taking enough risks. You should also remember – here's some other bits of good advice: if you notice something that you do, that probably means that you do it too much. Stop it. Do something else. If you notice something that is becoming a staple part of your style, abandon it, otherwise it will become a rut, and it'll be a crutch that you lean on, an easy little thing, and all of your books will be exactly like the last one. I'm sure we could all think of a lot of authors – perhaps quite popular ones – who write the same book over and over again – sometimes very entertainingly – but they're not moving anywhere. I'd say keep moving – if you stay still, you die. As a writer. You might die very lucratively, but creatively you're not gonna be cutting it.
Also, if you're sure you can do something, that's probably because you've done it before. If you're sure you can do something there's probably no need, no point in bothering to do it. This is perhaps not advice for people when they're starting out. When you start out, you want the security of knowing you can accomplish these things. But if you get on, there'll come a point when you realise if you're sure you can do something, then there's no point in doing it because it's too safe. Best thing is trying to find a decent-looking cliff edge and throwing yourself over it. Think: “What would be really impossible to do – or nearly impossible to do? What am I not sure I could do?”.
(We again returned to a conversation about Voice of the Fire , covering some familiar topics before moving on to conclude with an observation about coming to trust the process of writing itself).
…so it was leaving an insane amount of stuff to chance. I knew in that last chapter I knew I had to have turning up within my field of vision within Northampton spectral black dogs, I had to have a severed head, a real, human, severed head turning up somewhere in Northampton, because these were motifs running through the entire narrative. Since all the other stories had taken place in November, this was right that I had to write about things that happened to me during the November when I was writing this last chapter. And I think on the last night of November I'd taken a bunch of mushrooms, I'd done a ritual, I was basically asking the gods: “For fuck's sake, help me find a way out of this novel, before I go mad. Give me an ending”.
And that was the night I came downstairs and saw on the telly the details of this murder case that had been held at the County Court behind Sceptre Church at Campbell Square there, and it was the details of a murder trial that had happened previously but had just come to trial in November. In Corby an old man had had a home invasion, someone had broken into his house and he'd been murdered. The detail that hadn't come to light at the time was that his head wasn't there, at the crime scene. It was found, later, by a black dog, under a hedge, which…perfect. I mean I'm sorry for the guy and all that but I mean I'd got stuff in the 11 th century chapter about how the head of St Edmund was found being guarded by a big black dog, so to have this conjunction of black dogs and heads – and it was the first decapitation I could remember happening in Northampton during my lifetime. They're not that common, so the fact that it should happen right when I needed it to happen to finish my novel…yeah, you've gotta trust – when you get to a certain point, the best advice I can give to any writer is: trust the process. The process by which you write is a mysterious thing that is separate to you – it is a magical thing, it is a mysterious thing that doesn't really follow conventional laws of physics or logic. It guides you, it tells you to do certain things, sometimes irrational things. If you trust your instincts, if you trust your feelings, if it feels right, then trust the process, even if it looks hopeless. If something in your instinct tells you that this is possible, and if you just do these things you can get to that point, then trust it.
You have to kind of surrender yourself to the art, which is bigger than you are and more important than you are. If you can surrender yourself utterly – which takes some nerve – then there won't be very much you can't do. In my experience, there's a certain amount of surrender involved, in forgetting what your career plans are or what your literary plan is, sort of: “I'm going to have written the great British novel by the time I'm…”. Whatever. Forget all that. Trust the process. If the process says you really really should write a 200-page work on dogshit, then don't worry, if it feels right, don't worry if it make senses or not, it will be a great book about dogshit, it'll sell a million copies, it will…even if it sounds unlikely but that's what the process tells you, go with it. It's bigger than you are, and it knows better than you do. At least in my experience.
(We then went on to talk about Alan's 80's silver suit, comics fandom and all sorts. But that was that for The Craft.)
This interview is copyright Daniel Whiston, 2004; any errors are entirely my fault (having spoken to Alan after the interview was first published, he mentioned a few terms/references that I had transcribed incorrectly - but I never established what they were. He planned to revise the mistakes, but so far hasn't had time to); this interview previously appeared in Zarjaz.
(Editors Note: Art sourced by Barry Renshaw, Leon Hewitt and Matthew Badham. All images copyright their respective holders, and are used for information/review purposes only. No infringement of copyright is intended nor should be inferred)
ALAN MOORE LINKS:
V for Vendetta Shrine:
Rare Moore related art, Spanish language site
Moore related music clips, including March of the Sinister Ducks and the V Theme, Spanish language site:
ALAN MOORE'S ARTISTS LINKS:
BATMAN: Killing Joke artist Brian Bolland:
http://www.brianbolland.com (currently unavailable)
HALO JONES artist Ian Gibson:
WATCHMEN colourist John Higgins:
YUGGOTH CULTURES artist Bryan Talbot
WATCHMEN artist Dave Gibbons
V for Vendetta:
League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen:
Including LOST GIRLS, VOICE OF THE FIRE and others
For ABC Comics, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Batman: Killing Joke and others
ABC Comics/ DC Comics page for Promethea
For Hypothetical Lizard and Yuggoth Cultures
For Halo Jones, D.R. and Quinch
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