Moving Pictures May 2009

The Sorcery of Alan Moore

How pop culture fell under a comic-book writer’s strange spell
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Illustration by Sean McCabe

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Video: Alan Moore's From Hell

James Parker shares a climactic scene from the film adaptation of Alan Moore's Jack the Ripper story

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.

“If you can make a symbol that plants itself in someone’s head,” said Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, when I called him in February to talk about all this, “then you’re doing magic. Right now, for instance, they’re getting ready to make Iron Man II, and you could look at Iron Man, in that sense, as a spell that was cast 45 years ago that is only now coming to fruition. This is pop culture we’re talking about. Get your idea in front of a whole lot of eyeballs, and congratulations, you’ve changed the world.”

Nothing gets in front of those eyeballs like a big movie, of course, but Moore retains a pagan suspicion of Hollywood, and has refused to so much as look at any of the adaptations of his work. The first two, it’s true, he would barely recognize: the Hughes brothers’ From Hell (2001) made a bloody hash of his multitiered Ripper-ography, while The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) rendered the literary supermen of the graphic novel—Captain Nemo, Quatermain, etc.—as a sort of antiquarian A-Team. V for Vendetta (2006) was getting closer, but missed the original’s very English seep of paranoia—a tone, incidentally, that was perfectly caught by the same year’s Children of Men.

And now we have Zack Snyder’s Watchmen—as devout and frame-by-frame a reworking as could be imagined. Set in a tweaked version of Nixon’s America, in which the 37th president is enjoying his fifth term in office, Watchmen features an imminent nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union, a squad of aging and profane superheroes, and a Vietnam War that was won by the U.S. with the help of a naked blue radioactive man.

This last personage, who goes by the name of Dr. Manhattan (and who’s played rather beautifully by Billy Crudup in the movie), is the time bomb at the heart of the book. His genesis is poignant. As a harmless physicist named Jon Osterman, he gets himself disembodied in an incident with some particle cannons: a terrible radiance consumes him. His consciousness, however, survives, and in some private air pocket of time he remodels his physical being, manifesting finally as a hairless and phosphorescent semi-deity in robin’s-egg blue. His awesome telekinetic powers—blowing up tanks, building nuclear reactors in midair—are almost incidental to his bewildering metaphysical insights. Dr. Manhattan sees the past and the future with equal clarity, and is only a little wobbly on the day-to-day. His presence in the story, never quite accommodated, seems in some magnetic way to determine the structure of Moore’s Watchmen, with its use—unprecedented in comics at the time—of flashbacks and symmetries and sudden expansions into mental space.

“Time is simultaneous,” he explains in the comic to his girlfriend, Laurie, “an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” This is scarcely the language of romance, and in fact Manhattan is drifting away from human attachment: one panel of the comic, replicated faithfully in Snyder’s movie, has him sitting on the edge of a freshly rumpled bed, examining Laurie’s discarded bra with a frown of celestial skepticism. (At the screening I attended, this got a big laugh.)

Snyder’s Watchmen labors a little under the burden of its fidelity to the original. The dialogue, some of it imported verbatim, tends to lie flat on top of the action as if penciled there. And the narrative switchbacks, matching those in the comic, are headspinning; as the credits roll, a sense of nonplussment disperses itself through the theater like an odor, a feeling of “What the *#%$ was that?” But this may also be the film’s triumph—its successful retention of the psyops flavor of Moore’s work, the dim sense that we are being addressed, strategically, at a level somewhere below the threshold of reason. In the movie’s compacted temporal layers, and in the lodestone strangeness of Dr. Manhattan (who for weeks loomed off billboards across America), Moore’s magic seems to be doing its thing. It’s art, after all.

Not that he’ll endorse or acknowledge it. Moore keeps his distance, stays in Northampton, grooms his allure (and his beard). Let Hollywood pursue its ends: an influence like his is properly measured not in box-office takings but in auras and offstage thumps. He’s the spook at the séance, the ectoplasmic blur in the old photo. Try to pin him down and in his place you’ll find nothing but a perturbation in the air—the after-throb, with twittering lights, of a just-departed old-school time machine.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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