Moore the merrier

As his first anthology of short stories is published, writer Alan Moore, better known for comic books, talks about inspiration, perception and how to fix the world

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Alan Moore is chuckling. This may come as a surprise to those who only know the renowned author for his dark comic-book epics such as Watchmen and V For Vendetta. Those works, and his subsequent public battles with corporate publishers, have left him with a reputation for being something of a scowling, curmudgeonly hermit.

The truth, of course, is very different. In person, Moore is gracious, thoughtful and – yes – very funny, happily chatting for well over an hour beyond our allotted 30-minute interview from the same Northampton house he’s lived in for decades. It’s just that the image of the angry wizard forever snarling about superheroes tends to make better headlines for scurrilous pop culture websites eager for clicks.

The reason he’s chuckling right now is because we’re talking about The Improbably Complex High-Energy State, a dizzying philosophical satire set in the world of quantum particles in the micro-seconds after the Big Bang, and one of nine eclectic tales in Illuminations, his first volume of short prose stories. This one in particular features tiny brains with rockabilly quiffs, the image of which still clearly tickles him.

“I started out doing comedy stuff,” he explains in his unmistakable Midlands baritone rumble. Indeed, his first published work was as a cartoonist in the 1970s for music magazine Sounds, for which he supplied the anarchic comic strip Roscoe Moscow under the wonderfully punk nom de plume Curt Vile.

“After the early stages of my career in America, I think that people tended to see me as that guy who does the dark gritty dystopian material and that I was some kind of grim, dark gritty guy. Even in the most horrific things that I’ve done, there’s generally a joke or two in there somewhere. I like humour. Nobody wants to be a dark British dystopian guy forever, you know? it’s not a good look.”

“Nobody wants to be a dark British dystopian guy forever, you know? it’s not a good look.”

His playfully dry humour is definitely to the fore in several of the stories in Illuminations. As well as the aforementioned High-Energy State, there’s Location Location Location, a sort of apocalyptic sitcom in which a nervous estate agent shows a resurrected Jesus Christ around a suburban house, discussing TV boxsets as the End of Days unfolds spectacularly above them. Not Even Legend depicts a bickering provincial club of paranormal enthusiasts from the perspective of a mythical interloper who experiences time backwards. Cold Reading, on the other hand, is a classic horror story, MR James by way of Ken Loach, while Hypothetical Lizard is baroque high fantasy with a gender-fluid social conscience.

Some of these tales already existed, such as Hypothetical Lizard, the oldest in the bunch, written in the 1980s. Four of the stories are completely new, written for this volume. It turns out that despite his prolific output, Moore is not one of those creators who is compelled to drag every idea onto the page, stockpiling prose for a rainy day. There is, sadly, no vast library of unseen Moore classics waiting to be unearthed.

“I wish that there was this trove of unpublished stories that I could have dived into,” he admits. “But there’s hardly anything that hasn’t been published. If I come up with an idea, I will sometimes note it down or sometimes just depend upon my memory. They tend to brew somewhere in the semi-conscious for weeks, months, years.”

Given his tendency towards the epic in his recent work – his 2018 novel Jerusalem spans centuries and clocks in at over 1,200 pages – there’s a sense that returning to relative brevity has been a liberating and energising experience.

“It was a real pleasure returning to short stories because I’ve always loved them, you know? I really wanted to try and show off the breadth of stuff that I’m capable of – trying things that I haven’t done before. That’s mainly been my process throughout my entire career.”

The longest story in the book is also the one that will likely get the most attention. What We Can Know About Thunderman is more novella than short story, tracing the fortunes, foibles and falling out of various writers and artists working at a fictional US comic book publisher from the 1960s onwards.

“I wrote Thunderman in three months,” Moore says. “It was never intended to be that long but it just kind of spewed forth once I sat down at the word processor.”

I tell him I was surprised to see him returning to talking about comics one last time after his previous dismissal of the industry.

“It was like lancing a boil,” he laughs. “Better out than in, as they say. Thunderman has actually stopped me from muttering in the bath in the mornings. I obviously had a lot of issues with my career in comics and having disowned most of my comics work, at least most of the work that people seemto care about, I’ve still got a lot of thoughts concerning comics and these were also connecting up with thoughts about America that have occurred to me since 2016.”

It’s the story fans and critics alike will no doubt dissect most eagerly, looking for clues as to which real life comic creators and publishers are being satirised, but Moore is quick to add a disclaimer. “It’s not a book with a key where this character is that person. It’s not like that. Most of the characters in it, the majority of them are composites. An alarming number of the incidents are possibly slight exaggerations.”

Another notable story is the one that gives the book its title. Illuminations is a haunting and melancholy descent into madness, following a despondent middle-aged man trying to rekindle happy childhood memories by visiting the seaside resort where he used to holiday as a child only to find past and present merging into one. It’s a creepy and poignant tale, acknowledging the allure of the past but conscious of its poisonous potential.

Don’t think that this means Moore thinks that yearning for the comfort of reminiscence is healthy though. “I’m not a fan of nostalgia,” he insists. “There’s a line in [Illuminations] about how perhaps fascism was always just weaponised nostalgia. And I think that that’s very true. The ages that we remember, the things that we are nostalgic about, they didn’t really happen. Or they didn’t happen like that. We edit out the bits that don’t fit our rosy picture.”

Illuminations was inspired by a “disastrous” 2005 visit to Great Yarmouth, where he holidayed as a child, and plays into the idea of what he calls “this stupendous block universe”. It’s a theory that recurs in various forms throughout his work, from Dr Manhattan in Watchmen, temporally dislocated and able to see past, present and future at the same time, to the dizzying tapestry of Jerusalem, which collapses centuries of Northampton family history into a cosmic singularity.

“I believe that if we consider our lifetime as a physical structure in space-time, it would have our birth at one end of it and our cremated ashes at the other end of it,” he says, effortlessly segueing from Yarmouth’s tacky waxworks to quantum philosophy. “It would be like that forever, including that bit in the middle where we are living and conscious and having our lives – that would be there forever as well.

“The universe is a solid through which only our consciousness is moving, almost like a projector on a strip of film. Each of those frames is frozen and static forever, and nothing will change that. But when we run the light of a projector across them, or in this analogy the light of our consciousness, then you get the illusion of – well, it’s not even an illusion – you get movement, you get morality and motivation and good and evil.”

Speaking of evil, the last time I interviewed Moore for Big Issue North, in 2009, he declared that we were about to witness the end of the world – at least as we knew it – as our 20th century systems of finance and government would fall apart, unable to cope with the turbulence of the new century. Well, his prediction certainly wasn’t wrong – but in 2022 his mood is, if not optimistic, then cautiously hopeful.

“What we need to do is fairly clear,” he says of the current state of things. “One thing that we need to do is certainly get beyond the idea of economic growth, which is absolutely killing us. This probably would also mean moving beyond capitalism. When I look at the resurgence of populist fascism, the Brexit lot, the Trump presidency, the storming of the Capitol building, the horrific overturn of Roe v Wade, the right wing is being very, very aggressive. And I have to ask myself why and why now. Might it be because the world that they have built, which largely benefits them, they know can’t go on? They know that history is moving to another place.”

The answer, rather neatly, is framed as a question. “I have got a powerful eight-word question and if government ever admits to hearing it, then they are doomed,” he says. “Competence and proficiency tests for leadership: why not? I mean, we need something to change. That is very definite. We cannot continue to be led by what often turns out to be the absolute worst of us.”

Illuminations is out now (Bloomsbury)

Gimme Moore

Illuminations is just one of Moore’s notable creative works outside comic books. Here are some highlights from an eclectic career.

The Birth Caul
A spoken word performance piece from the mid-1990s inspired by the death of Moore’s mother, and his subsequent discovery of her birth caul – a remnant of the amniotic sac often kept for ritual purposes – among her belongings.

Voice of the Fire
Moore’s first prose novel, published in 1996, features the lives of 12 characters told chronologically across 6,000 years of history. The final chapter features Moore himself, ruminating on the previous stories.

Another live performance piece, this time formed in the 2017 post-Brexit political miasma. “The light of burning corporations will repaint the sky in grenadine,” intones Moore over techno beats, his face painted like a fearsome ape.

Show Pieces/The Show
A series of darkly comic short films that culminated in a 2020 feature film about a private detective lost in Northampton’s nocturnal strangeness. Moore cameos as Frank Metterton, a light entertainer resurrected as a golden faced deity.

Dodgem Logic
This bi-monthly counterculture magazine, edited and self-published by Moore, remains one of the projects closest to his heart. Eight issues were published between 2010 and 2011, the second of which featured a pull-out comic called Astounding Weird Penises.

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