Alan Moore is an English writer widely regarded as the best and most influential writer in the history of comics. His seminal works included From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He is also the author of the bestselling Jerusalem. He was born in Northampton, and has lived there ever since. His latest release is Illuminations: Stories and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What inspired you to collect some of your short fiction into Illuminations?
I sometimes worry that a writer starting out today might, through the various cultural pressures surrounding them, attempt to commence their career with a gigantic multi-part epic that they imagine ending up as a lucrative TV or movie franchise. This, in my view, is a terrible way for a writer to learn their craft. The short story, on the other hand, seems to me ideal in this regard: in a short story, no matter how brief, the writer will be called upon to create all of the elements that a longer work will entail—present one’s characters and their situation; make the hundreds of stylistic choices that are part of any narrative; resolve the whole affair with a satisfying conclusion that conveys whatever point the tale was trying to communicate—and to do all this in the space of five or ten or twenty pages. There really is no better way to acquire the skills that will be necessary for a longer work, should you still wish to attempt one.
For my own part, short comic-strip stories were how I began my professional writing career, and although I’ve written relatively few prose stories, I’ve always felt that these contained some of my very best work. I understand that part of my audience is chiefly focused upon a roughly five-year period of comic stories that I did nearly forty years ago, but I wanted to make it clear that my interests as a writer went somewhat further than that. Hence Illuminations.
What was your process for putting together this collection? How did you decide which of your stories would be included?
My first step in assembling the collection was to gather my published short-form works together and then exclude the pieces that didn’t seem to fit or had been made widely available elsewhere. With this accomplished, I estimated that it would require four new stories to complete a reasonably-sized volume, and very soon thereafter decided on what those stories should be about. They were all completed in a rush of excited energy during the early months of 2021, and for my money, they represent my most accomplished short-story work to date, even if What We Can Know About Thunderman turned out to be a short story that was strenuously trying to turn itself into something else entirely.
You’ve done a lot of different types of work (graphic novels, novels, and short stories, to name a few). Is there a format that you prefer over the others?
All media have things that they can achieve which no other medium is capable of, and the trick is to write to the unique strengths of whatever area one happens to be working in. I find it as difficult to compare different media as I would find comparing, say, swings and oranges. That said, if pressed to name the medium I most admire, it would be unadorned prose or poetry, simply because writing is our first technology—the technology that makes all other technologies possible—and is still our most powerful, most elegant, and most efficient: with a mere couple of dozen characters and a peppering of punctuation, we can convincingly conjure absolutely anything in the conceivable universe. Also, writing is the form which forces the reader to do at least half of the work, in imagining the landscapes or conjuring the characters’ appearance and the sound of their voices, and I believe that the art we find most affecting is the art that we put this personal effort into engaging with, rather than art which washes over its viewer and makes them, sometimes, into mere passive recipients.
Is there something you haven’t done yet but are hoping to have the opportunity to try?
Perhaps levitation, but beyond that, I can’t really think of anything.
Your career spans four decades. Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how comic books and graphic novels have grown from being considered disposable/transitory entertainment to the cultural juggernaut they currently are within our culture?
A brief glance at the comic industry and its ongoing state of collapse will demonstrate that comics are nothing that could be described as a cultural juggernaut. However, I have noticed that many people use the term "comics"—a wonderful sequential art form that has evolved from the lowest pulp rungs of print media—when what they actually mean is "superhero movies". As to how superhero movies have achieved their current prominence, I think this relates to the notion, in the late 1980s, that “comics have grown up”. There seems very little evidence to support this idea, and I think it more likely that, rather than growing up, comics simply met the emotional age of the public coming the other way: the advent of ‘graphic novels’ seemed to give middle-class adults permission to enjoy something that they’d previously considered trashy, childish, and socially beneath them. Also, it may be that the late 1980s was a point where an increasingly large number of people began to feel (understandably) overwhelmed by the burgeoning complexity and pace of the modern world surrounding them, and perhaps started to feel the need to retreat, psychologically and emotionally, to the simpler and more cozy world offered by the comics they read as children.
When I was asked this question around ten years ago, I expressed my concern that hundreds of thousands of adults were queuing to watch characters and situations intended to entertain the twelve-year-old children—mostly boys—of fifty years ago. This seemed to me to represent a retreat to infantilism with extremely worrying social and political implications, an opinion for which I was angrily derided at the time, but which I feel that subsequent events have possibly vindicated. In short, I feel that the real cultural juggernaut is the resurgence of populist fascism, and that cinematic superhero are, for the most part, its pretty cheerleaders.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Since I don’t read in bed, what’s on my night table at the moment is an ashtray supported by two metal frogs that is currently full of loose pocket change; a bag of Rowntree’s fruit pastilles; a bulging and battered cardboard folder containing the original draft of the forthcoming Moon & Serpent Bumper Book of Magic; a copy of Steve Moore’s work of classical scholarship Selene; a notebook that represents an abandoned attempt to write down my dreams; a couple of copies of Weird Tales with lovely Margaret Brundage covers; and paperback copies of Nik Cohn’s Arfur and Dee Brown’s The American West where I have no idea how they ended up there.
As for what’s in my pile of things to read at present, that would be the trove of Beat Generation items that I recently purchased from Beat Scene’s estimable editor and publisher, Kevin Ring. There’s a Ballantine paperback of Kerouac’s Dr. Sax, collections of the poetry of Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, a critical study of Richard Brautigan, Neal Cassady’s influential The Joan Anderson Letter, a collection of interviews called The Sullen Art that features an interview with the immaculate Gilbert Sorrentino, and a 1962 copy of Yugen magazine from LeRoi Jones and Hettie Cohen.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
I always have trouble with questions like this, because I don’t tend to think in terms of lists or favourites, and don’t really organise things I enjoy into a top ten. So, for what it’s worth, at this particular moment in time, I’ll say William Burroughs, Angela Carter, Iain Sinclair, Samuel Delaney and Michael Moorcock, although ask me in ten minutes time and it could be a different list altogether. I’m probably influenced in one way or another by every book I’ve ever read, good and bad alike.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
When I was six or seven, my favourite books were probably Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, although around age ten I was seriously persuaded towards a children’s edition of Don Quixote. And then, aged fourteen, I read Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, and childhood was effectively over.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
No. The most shameful, indecent, and arousing literature in the house when I was eleven would have been my father’s Harold Robbins’ paperbacks, that I was furtively reading, and by the time I was a few years older I could read what I liked, safe in the knowledge that neither of my parents were that interested.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
No. I have a morbid fear of being the person who maintains that their favourite part of Harper Lee’s book was when they finally killed that bloody irritating mockingbird.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
No—and that’s despite being a huge appreciator of book covers. When I bought all of the Corgi paperback editions of Ray Bradbury stories as a teenager, it was purely because I was crazy about Bradbury at the time, and the silver-backed, beautifully-designed Bruce Pennington covers were simply a massive bonus.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Thinking about it, if I hadn’t been quite so enthusiastic about the (retrospectively dubious) ideas in Timothy Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy—the Paladin paperback edition with the exquisite Martin Sharp cover—then I probably wouldn’t have been expelled from school for dealing LSD, wouldn’t have been forced back onto my own resources, and very possibly would never have ended up as a writer. Admittedly, it’s perhaps not the most heart-warming or inspiring way for a book to change one’s life, but looking back I’m very grateful that it did, even if many of Leary’s central tenets turned out, in my adult opinion, to be nonsense.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
There’s nothing that I’d claim to be evangelical about since I recognise that my particular tastes do not necessarily appeal to everyone. That said, I think that more people should read Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight and Steve Aylett’s Heart of the Original, along with far too many other titles for me to have the energy to evangelise over.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Some books, I find, can offer unexpected riches on a second reading—something I’ve recently learned from a re-reading of the underrated Richard Brautigan—whereas others can disappoint and perhaps tarnish an otherwise glowing memory. One day I’d like to finish Finnegans Wake, but that remains an aspiration rather than a commitment.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Being pretty much disconnected from mainstream culture—indeed, from almost any kind of modern culture—most of my cultural input comes from the work of the friends and family around me, or from their recommendations. I’m uniquely privileged in being able to see my wife Melinda Gebbie’s wonderful canvasses before the acrylic paint is dry, read the latest accomplished comic-strip work of my daughter Leah and her husband John Reppion, or delight in the elegant wire sculpture of my daughter Amber. There’s the mighty music of my pal Joe Brown’s band, 72%, and our ingenious mate Yoshe Watson with her motion-sensitive, dance-controlled music and lights. We’re lucky enough to have lots of brilliant comedian friends, and in that capacity have recently enjoyed a DVD of Jo Neary’s excellent Wife on Earth performance, and Robin Ince’s career-best Inside Robin Ince podcast. Recommendations have led to me to discover the musical genius of Sleaford Mods, the powerful, affecting and painfully funny performance Nanette by Hannah Gadsby, along with Beau Burnham’s masterful Inside, and the astonishing Eddie Pepitone. And a couple of weeks ago I received a newly-published poetry collection, Scribblyjack, from the magnificent Newcastle poet Tom Pickard, along with the first comic book by the tremendous young poet Chrissy Williams, Golden Rage. So, despite existing in a cultural sensory deprivation tank, I don’t think I’m doing too bad.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
A day spent somewhere comfortable and out of the public eye—like, say, my home in Northampton—in the company of my wife, our daughters, our grandchildren, our family, and our incredible friends would, for me, be a perfect one. I get far too few of them.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
There isn’t one. Being a writer, if there’s anything I feel the need to say, I don’t need to wait for someone to ask me a question. I can just volubly hold forth with my opinions without being that concerned over whether anyone wanted to hear them.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m largely involved with interviews and publicity work around the publication of Illuminations, but once that’s concluded I’m desperate to get back to work on the first of my Long London quintet of novels, which is titled The Great When, and I’m currently paused at the beginning of chapter four, which is called "Popes and Potpourri". It’s a lot of fun, or it will be when I can return to it, with as exotic a cast of characters—most of them real—as anything I’ve ever written.