Moving Pictures May 2009

The Sorcery of Alan Moore

How pop culture fell under a comic-book writer’s strange spell

Illustration by Sean McCabe

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When time travel has reached the mass-transit stage, and we’re all trundling in bored herds up and down the escalators of history, it will be a banality verging on bad manners to complain of “chrono-lag.” By then, you see, everyone will have it—the fourth-dimensional halo around the vision, the rumor of the dead in one’s ears, and so on.

For the moment, though, sensations like these remain the preserve of the artist. Indeed, a susceptibility to being steeped in time, as a long-haul flier is steeped in distance, can give a writer a serious creative edge: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was born of it, as were most of the novels of Philip K. Dick. “Time is the substance of which I am made,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories seemed to issue from the lucid core of a particularly nasty intertemporal hangover.

He could just as well have been writing about Alan Moore, latest and most wizardly (more on this later) of the literary time-tamperers, whose shadow over pop culture is currently longer than those of Vonnegut, Dick, and Borges combined. The recent film adaptation of Watchmen, an ’80s comic-book series with the top-to-bottom social sweep of a 19th-century novel, is the fourth movie in a decade to be based on Moore’s work. The previous three were From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta; Moore also invented the character on whom 2005’s Constantine was based, and his nightmarish take on the Joker, in the 1988 Batman comic book The Killing Joke, was cited by Heath Ledger as a model for the performance he gave in The Dark Knight. Moore is still short of Dick’s record—nine movies and counting—but he’s made a healthy start; his output is comparably voluminous, and unlike Dick (who died in 1982, just before the release of Blade Runner), he’s still in his prime.

Moore is a comics writer. He doesn’t draw the pictures, in other words, although the hallucinatory specificity of his scripts is proverbial in the comics industry: for the very first panel of Watchmen, his directions to the artist, Dave Gibbons, run to almost 700 words. (“Liquid fingers of blood, thick and scarlet, dribble down the wall of the curb … garish streaks of brilliant red against the muted concrete-gray of the stone …”) If part of the enterprise of comics writers over the past 30 years has been to reclaim and reinterpret an earlier, apparently exhausted symbolic world, then Moore has been the high priest of this postmodern ritual. Much of the action in his writing takes place on a sort of pop-cultural astral plane, a zippy mythic simultaneity where robots and white witches team up against Nazi scientists (Top 10: The Forty-Niners), H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain battles Conan Doyle’s Moriarty (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and Jack the Ripper takes tea with the Elephant Man (From Hell). Collage, pastiche, intertextuality—the arsenal of postmodernism, deployed instinctively—are merely the means by which Moore gains access to this dream layer.

He was born in 1953 in Northampton, in Britain’s Midlands—the part of the world that produced John Bunyan as well as Black Sabbath. His 1996 novel, Voice of the Fire, drills upward through the imaginative strata of the region like a heavy-metal Puck of Pook’s Hill, beginning in 4000 B.C. in the lumpy, embryonic language of a neolithic boy—“By tree-line stop and set we down on stump”—and ending, via alchemists and crusaders, with the author himself in his Northampton living room, in 1995, groping for his remote amid “the permafrost of magazine and empty teacup.” The operation of the book puts Moore squarely in the midst of place-obsessed, history-haunted writers such as the novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd, the veteran fabulist Michael Moorcock, and the “psycho-geographer” Iain Sinclair: what might be defined as the contrary tendency in present-day English letters to the Amis/Hitchens/McEwan rationalist headlock. At the wellspring of inspiration, for this more mystical set, is William Blake—“the voice of our Right Brain, the mind’s Atlantis,” as he is hailed in From Hell—whose blazing self-published proto-comics full of interdimensional warfare and fantastic musculature were, of course, completely ignored in his lifetime. Ackroyd wrote a fine Blake biography that was published in 1995; Moore has done performance pieces and recorded a CD in Blake’s honor. In the graphic novel The Invisibles, by Moore’s contemporary Grant Morrison, Blake’s Urizen emerges gray-faced from the River Thames, like Poseidon after a heavy night.

Moore and his crew are dowsers, scryers, remote viewers, rambling around inside the occult power grid supposedly delineated by the six London churches of architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. They meet not at publishers’ luncheons but on psychic tangents. Jerry Cornelius, the Byronic time-hopper created by Moorcock, makes a cameo in Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; in Sinclair’s 2005 travelogue Edge of the Orison, a pilgrimage in the traces of 19th-century peasant poet John Clare, Moore himself briefly appears as a guide, “curtain of hair tossed back, snakehead stick brandished.”

This might be a good moment to mention that Moore is also a practicing magician—which is to say, he performs rituals, and summons entities. “The first experience I had,” he told Arthur magazine in 2003,

and this is very difficult to describe, but it felt to me as if me and a very close friend of mine, were both taken on this ride by a specific entity. The entity seemed to me, and to my friend, to be … [sighs] … to be this second-century Roman snake god called Glycon.

Moore’s magicking has entered his writing most didactically in the comic Promethea: Book Four of the series gives readers a guided tour of the kabbalistic Tree of Life, roosting in whose branches we find 20th-century magi such as Aleister Crowley (in drag) and the late artist Austin Osman Spare. The apparent paradox presented here—a droll postmodernist who worships at the altar of Glycon—is, within the world of comics, no paradox at all.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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