“‘Lost Girls’ is an attempt to do a red hot work of pornography that also satisfies any artistic or moral criteria that you care to throw at it. A difficult kind of balancing act, but I’m pretty confident about how we’ve pulled it off. As it were.”
Alan Moore is talking about his first major work in almost a decade, a high-art porno-graphic novel entitled ‘Lost Girls’, conceived and conceptualized in tandem with his wife, the San Franciscan underground artist Melinda Gebbie. A mammoth three-part work, expensively bound and as weighty as it is elegant, the 16-years-in-the-making tome has caused no little controversy on account of its decidedly eroticised depictions of Wendy from ‘Peter Pan’, Dorothy from ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, and Alice from ‘Alice In Wonderland’, all meeting as grown women in a Swiss hotel on the eve of World War I to swap sexual fables and fantasies.
‘Lost Girls’ sold out in its first day of publication last year, and was hailed as yet another of Moore’s innovative breakthroughs in the realm of comic books for grown-ups. In his introduction to the book, ‘Sandman’ creator Neil Gaiman wrote: “As an exercise in the formal bounds of pure comics, ‘Lost Girls’ is remarkable, as good as anything Moore has done in his career. In addition to being a master-class in comics technique, ‘Lost Girls’ is also an education in Edwardian Smut – Gebbie and Moore pastiche the pornography of the period, taking in everything from ‘The Oyster’ to the ‘Venus and Tannhauser’ period work of Aubrey Beardsley.”
Typical of Moore that, just as the graphic novel form has achieved widespread highbrow credibility, he should push it even further, blurring the lines between the cerebral and sensual.
“Pornography is an area where there are absolutely no standards, so most of it is ugly, brainless shit,” Moore declares, “therefore people look at it and say, ‘Well, most of the pornography that I can see is ugly, brainless and perhaps sometimes immoral or degrading shit, therefore all pornography that can be conceived of must be in the same category. I tend to go along with the late, lovely Angela Carter who, at the end of her book ‘The Sadean Women’, says that she can envisage a more human form of pornography that doesn’t necessarily sacrifice any of its erotic power, but which functions in the way that art should function.”
Moore, speaking from his home in Northampton back in 2002, proved an affable and endlessly distracting conversationalist prone to head-spinning flights of verbal fancy. One might expect a fully paid up warlock, self-described “jobbing psychogeographer” and scholar of esoterica to be an intimidating interview, but despite the Gandalf-the-grey hair and beard, wild eyes and numerous rings, torcs and clasps, the tone of voice is strictly bloke-in-a-pub, and he’s as likely to wax lyrical on pop culture as he is the arcane arts. Or, for that matter, erotica.
“One of the main functions of art is that it makes you less alone,” he continues. “You look at some picture and think, ‘I’ve had that thought, somebody had the same perception as me. That makes me feel less alone.’ Pornography is something to be enjoyed, if that’s the word, on your own, with a box of tissues. The feeling afterwards is you feel dirty (laughs), you feel soiled, because you’ve just gratified yourself watching something that any aesthetic part of your mind was probably continually pointing out is lame, boring, banal, ugly and stupid. There should be somebody who says, ‘Hang on, what is wrong with creating art about sex?’ Even William Blake, his marginalia, all these copulating couples, different sex, same sex, different age couples, this is someone who’s obviously got a very healthy sexual imagination, as indeed most artists have.
“But we’ve been doing this thing for 16 years, and I’m really glad that we didn’t get it finished earlier, because I think that this is a perfect time for it to come out. I mean, sexual attitudes are shaking up again. I know Tony Bennett at Knockabout Comics, after decades of getting not very nice letters from the Customs, got a very nice letter from them a couple of years ago telling him that there’d be no problem importing collections of ‘The Complete Robert Crumb’, even though they showed vaginal fisting, which was still one of the touchy areas. But since the vaginal fisting looked like jolly fun from the pen of Robert Crumb, they decided it looked consensual and they’d no problem with it at all.
“I think people are gagging for pornography that is beautifully produced and is intelligent, and can keep you in state of continuous arousal. It should be harder work than a normal book – which is certainly what we’ve found. There’s that sort of penis-brain blood ratio problem that you get with trying to write intelligent pornography. The blood is either in the brain or in the penis. If it gets too smart and too clever it’s no longer horny, and if it gets too amok in its horniness, then the intelligence can get lost very easily. But I’m pretty pleased with how we’ve handled it. We’ll see how ‘Lost Girls’ goes, but it’d be nice if we could create a new niche: decent pornography.”
If anyone can rehabilitate the medium, it’s Moore. Born November 18, 1953 in Northampton, a graduate of the arts labs of the late ’60s, he began drawing comic strips for Sounds and NME under the name Curt Vile, before contributing stories to Marvel UK, Warrior and 2000AD in its cutting edge heyday (his classic ‘The Ballad Of Halo Jones’ featured the magazine’s first female lead). He quit in 1986, after the first of what would be many fallings out with comic book publishers on matters of principle, but by then he’d established himself with DC Comics, having rehabilitated the ailing ‘Swamp Thing’ character as an eco-mutant anti-hero.
Throughout the late 80s Moore perfected the insurgent paranoiac masterpieces ‘Miracleman’ and ‘V For Vendetta’, but when the collected ‘Watchmen’ strip was published in 1987, it sealed his reputation as a comic book legend, recasting his superheroes as sexually and psychologically dysfunctional deviants framed against a backdrop of Cold War mistrust and imminent nuclear war.
Since then, he has diversified into literature (1996’s ‘Voice Of The Fire’ was set in Northampton over a 6000 year span – his next project will be a rambling epic novel entitled ‘Jerusalem’), spoken word recordings and live performance, as well as achieving mainstream recognition through film adaptations of varying quality: ‘V For Vendetta’, ‘Constantine’, ‘The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ and ‘From Hell’, all of which he has noisily disowned – not least because his painstaking research and rich themes tend to get chopped from the earliest drafts of screenplays. Here’s the irony: Moore’s work imbues comic book characters with Shakespearian weight and depth; Hollywood reduces them to the level of one-dimensional stereotypes.
One such theme, evident in his mapping of 1880s London in the speculative-historical Jack The Ripper saga ‘From Hell’, is that of pyschogeography; the notion that the myths and histories of the places we inhabit exert an invisible but powerful influence on us when engaged with by the sensory imagination. Conversely, when we superimpose our own dreams and visions on our environment, that environment becomes enhanced far beyond the mundane.
“In the novel that I did, ‘Voice Of The Fire’, I was doing the same thing for Northampton, which probably needs it more than London, ’cos there are a lot of great London novels,” Moore says. “But London is obviously a fascinating place, and if you’re a jobbing psychogeographer, it’s rich territory for mining. With ‘From Hell’, that was probably where I started to get the bug, because in the course of my early researches I came across (writer and filmmaker) Iain Sinclair, and I’ve gotta give Iain all credit for being the person who completely turned my head around with regard to a new way of looking at landscape, the kind of buildings that we spend our lives amongst, and recognizing that how we see the landscape that we live in makes us what we are.
“For example, in some ancient cultures, the basic idea of a house and the way it would be decorated was pretty much the same idea as a decoration for a temple: to make it a microcosm of the universe. Stars on the ceiling, the four elements represented, so that people felt like gods living in their small fun-sized universes. If you’re living in a gorgeous temple, you’re thinking, ‘Hang on – I’m in a temple, I’m probably a god!’ But if you put somebody in a tower block, and it’s a shitheap, you’re gonna subconsciously take in the message: ‘Hey, I’m living in a shitheap, I’m probably a shit.’ Our environment, and our response to it, creates us.”
Furthermore, Moore maintains that the spirits of those who dwelled in such spaces throughout the ages have insinuated themselves into the ether.
“For me, part of what all of this psychogeography, this mining the streets for meaning, is all about, is that if you just find out a little bit about the streets you live in, it suddenly gives you this much richer, deeper world in which to exist. Like, the dull-looking little church at the end of my road here, which I walk past once a day on average, I found out that that was where Francis Crick went to Sunday school, that was where he sat and sang about all things bright and beautiful and all creatures great and small…and he goes on and discovers DNA.
“Just down the road from it there are the cricket grounds where Samuel Beckett once played cricket for Cambridge against Northampton. I can imagine this very sort of Beckett-like cricket match where there are perhaps a couple of outfielders waiting for the ball to come in their direction, wondering whether or not they should go to the pavilion: ‘Should we go to the pavilion?’ ‘Yes.’ Nobody moves. So that makes going down the shop for 20 Silk Cut and a pint of milk a much richer experience.”
This writer experienced a similar jolt of strangeness when he discovered James Joyce once lived beside the local off-license.
“Dear god, really? That wasn’t where he got the hand-job from Nora that’s celebrated on Bloomsday every year, was it? There’s a stratosphere of writers: all the writers that are above one, and then above them there’s Borges and Joyce and one or two others, that’s about as good as it gets. I tend to feel there is a timeless kinship with all these people, living or dead. I sometimes feel that, right at the heart of the human world, are these timeless dead/living voices in eternal debate: Blake and Joyce, their ideas interacting with each other, complementing each other, pitted against each other in people’s minds. Why the hell not? That’s the reality of things, all these people are mixed up in our heads, that juxtaposition is part of our reality.
“That’s why one of my favourite movies is Nic Roeg’s ‘Insignificance’; it’s a cracker, a little fantasy strung together upon very tenuous threads of historical fact. Apparently Senator Joe McCarthy did have a sexual fixation on blondes who looked like Marilyn Monroe. He also tried to get Albert Einstein to testify at the House Un-American Activities hearings and swear that he wasn’t a communist. Marilyn Monroe had said that Einstein was one of the two or three men that she’d like most to sleep with. She was married briefly to Joe DiMaggio, the big American sports hero.
“So there are these threads, but in Roeg’s film they all meet up one night by accident, and you’ve got the most beautiful woman in the world, the most fantastic brain in the world, the most powerful politician in America, the greatest sports hero in America, and it’s about: so which one of them is significant? And it works in all these images of Hiroshima, because in the context of the film this is the thing that haunts Einstein, the fact that his Special Theory of Relativity leads to the General Theory of Relativity which leads to Hiroshima. That was just juxtaposing these ideas without any chronology.”
Moore’s work has always wreaked havoc on chronology. One need look no further than the doomed Dr. Manhattan in ‘Watchmen’, a blue skinned weapon of mass destruction condemned to live in a relativist hell where he is continually aware of past, present and future all existing in a simultaneous, nightmarish flux. As Moore declaims on ‘Angel Passage’, his 2001 spoken-word tribute CD to William Blake: “Into eternity out of one stinking moment/Clocks reversing . . .”
Consequently, one of the most interesting ideas proposed in ‘From Hell’ was that the Whitechapel murders were a seed event of the 20th century, and the 1880s a kind of locked box containing the code for the decades to follow.
“That’s the way it seemed to me when I was putting the thing together,” Moore affirms. “Some of the threads that led into ‘From Hell’, one of them was the fact that around the time we started doing it, 1988, that was within a year or 18 months of Mrs. Thatcher’s famous cry for a return to Victorian values. So that was one aspect of it: ‘Alright, if we’re going to return to Victorian values, let’s see what they were; would it be a child up every chimney and a butchered prostitute in every back alley?’ And when I started to actually look at the 1880s I saw all of these parallels to the world of the late 20th century.”
“The fact that, in technological terms, the machine gun was invented in the 1880s; the motor car was invented in 1885; the Mitchelson-Morley experiments in 1882 which proved that the ether didn’t exist and opened the way for Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity. You’ve got the French invasion of Indo-China, which would lead to the Vietnam War. You’ve got the Mahdi Uprisings, which was probably the West’s first clash with modern Islam since the Crusades. In art and literature you’d got the Impressionists who were painting pictures of prostitutes and bar girls and dancing girls and things that hadn’t previously been considered as fitting subjects for art. You’d got Zola writing ‘Nana’.
“It’s an interesting decade whichever way you stack it, and all of these things that blossomed – often horribly – during the 20th century, you can kind of see that they all seemed to have their seed events in the 1880s. And if the 1880s was a microcosm of the 20th century, it seemed to me that what happened to Mary Kelly in the little room off Miller’s Court, the last of the Ripper murders, was a microcosm of the 1880s.”
So did he ever bother going to see the film version?
“Nah, Melinda (Gebbie) went to see it and said, ‘Not a bad film. She found Johnny Depp’s performance a little bit tepid. She thought if they’d focused more upon Ian Holm it would’ve perhaps been a much better film. Me daughters thought it was okay. Nobody said it was actually a really bad film. Iain Sinclair gave the most succinct summing up of it when he said, ‘It’s not a bad film in it own right, but it does kind of represent this American colonisation of the imagination.’ Without having seen it obviously I’m talking through me hat, but that sounds like a likely accurate verdict.
“I was never sure why they actually bothered to buy the rights to ‘From Hell’, because you take away all of the ruminations upon architecture and history and mysticism and all the rest of it, you’re pretty much left with the original story done by Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, all of these people in various productions.”
Still, at least ‘From Hell’ and ‘V For Vendetta’, while seriously flawed, were broadly sympathetic to the author’s vision. The way Moore tells it, it could have been much worse.
“I remember when ‘V For Vendetta’ was optioned,” he says. “The story is set in a near future bleak grim Britain, it’s after a limited nuclear war that happened elsewhere in the world, the weather’s been screwed up as a consequence, there’s been breakdowns of society everywhere, and there’s been a fascist takeover in Great Britain, and you’ve got this very romantic anarchist guy fighting against the forces of fascism.
“Now in the first screenplay that I got for ‘V For Vendetta’, because this anarchist dresses up in a Guy Fawkes costume, of course people in America have no idea who Guy Fawkes is, so they were going to change it to Paul Revere, and it wasn’t going to happen in London, ’cos that’s just gonna confuse Americans who can’t remember that there’s more than one country in the world, so perhaps it’s going to be set in New York. And that political stuff about fascism, that doesn’t really play, so we’ll have an America that’s been taken over by the commies. So you’ve got this true American dressed as Paul Revere fighting against the commie takeover.
“Eventually I think they realized that was a stupid idea. So I got the second draft of the script where I think to justify the special effects budget, they decided that having Britain taken over by fascists was just not exciting enough, and they’d used the fact that I mentioned a limited nuclear war to say, ‘Right, there’s mutants everywhere!’ So instead of it being fascist policemen that are patrolling the benighted streets of this enslaved London of the future, it’s half-goat mutant policemen. You’ve got these people that are policemen down to the waist and have goats’ legs. And as I said at the time, if you wanted to do a film about goat policemen, then why the fuck didn’t you just buy the option to Rupert Bear?!!
“But there’s something about the Hollywood thought process that I think will forever elude me. The reason that things are done or not done never seems to have any connection to any sort of reality that I recognize. That’s why I actively dissuade any contact with Hollywood. (Producer) Don Murphy is a nice bloke who phones me up and asks if I’ve got any more projects that could be turned into films, any laundry lists that I might have forgotten about, but I’ve never had any interest in actually writing for Hollywood. I had a brief fling when Malcolm McClaren asked me to a screenplay for one of these film properties that he’d got, and I did that to see if I could write a screenplay and also to hang out with Malcolm McClaren, who’s a great laugh, but that was it really.
“Of course they shot ‘League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ with Sean Connery, and to make it more acceptable to American audiences, which is of course a prime consideration, they had Tom Sawyer as one of the cast, so I imagine there was a completely riveting picket fence painting scene shoehorned into the story at some point.”
There wasn’t, but that didn’t stop Connery from clocking the director – or the film from being an absolute dog. Of course, the Holy Grail of Moore stories is ‘Watchmen’, recently included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, a meta-masterpiece so epic in scale and fiendishly complex in construction, filmmaker Terry Gilliam famously described it as “the ‘War And Peace’ of comic books”. Is it true Moore once convinced Gilliam that ‘Watchmen’ couldn’t be filmed?
“Well, I don’t know if I convinced him. I mean, we went to dinner and he asked me how I would go about making ‘Watchmen’ into a film, and I told him if anybody had bothered asking me earlier, I would have said, ‘I wouldn’t.’ Because I’d written ‘Watchmen’ to exploit aspects of comic book storytelling that couldn’t be duplicated by any other medium, to try and show off what comics are capable of. Which I think we kind of succeeded in doing. That was the last time I actually saw Terry – Terry as I call him, did you notice I just slipped that in there? Tel! – and I heard later that he seemed to have come to similar conclusions, that he wasn’t sure you could actually make a film of ‘Watchmen’ without taking out all the things that made the book work in the first place.
“But on the other hand, I do hear that at the end of every second or third Terry Gilliam interview he’ll sometimes have these little wistful moments where he’ll say that maybe his next film will be ‘Watchmen’, because he’s always felt sorry that he didn’t add that to his list of accomplishments.”
(NB, since our interview, Zack Snyder took on the ‘Watchmen’ project, due for release in spring 2009.)
“But I’m a great believer in the theory that the more work the audience has to actually do, the more they enjoy it ’cos the more they’ve invested. Cinema tends to be an immersive experience that just kind of rolls over the audience like a wave and they sit there and take it. That’s not to say that there can’t be good cinema, but for me there’s not much to beat a good book where you’re having to do all the work yourself. That’s my idea of interactive entertainment.”