Frank Quitely’s portrait of Alan Moore is majestically haunting. Thank the Big Bang comics writer C.B. Cebulski took a picture of it.
What can I say? If you don’t know who Alan Moore is, you need to fucking visit Wikipedia, post-haste. Or look at the faces of the fed-up youth of Anonymous wearing Guy Fawkes masks, which they lifted from Moore’s V For Vendetta. Or look at the mallrats and geeks, who watched the cult film adaptation of Moore’s epochal Watchmen. He’s writing a book longer than the Bible, for Christ’s sake!
Ergo, I never pass up a chance to pick his deep, destabilizing brain. I think this makes the fourth time that Alan and have shot the cross-continental breeze by phone, although this is certainly the longest we’ve ever talked. As Neil Gaiman once told me about Alan, the first thing you have to understand is that he’s a genius. Just toss him a few smart questions, and he’ll show you. No problem.
Sure, we talked about his psychedelic new installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1969, wherein Mick Jagger threatens to become a literal Dark Lord and Moore’s metatemporal detective, Dracula‘s Mina Murray, must battle evil on the astral plane. And of course, we talked about how superheroes have thoroughly repopulated pop culture in our time of apocalypse. But we also talked about all kinds of other things, for nearly two hours. And it’s all up on Wired, for your cerebral pleasure. Click on, read up, trip out.
The real Alan Moore, England’s greatest gentleman. Image courtesy Gavin Wallace/Hoax
Visionary comics writer Alan Moore has largely migrated beyond the madness of the faltering comics industry, which is being overshadowed by film and television at Comic-Con International. But, lucky for us, not entirely.
During the annual San Diego convention this week, Top Shelf Productions will show off the psychedelic majesty of Moore and longtime artistic collaborator Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1969, due in August and previewed in the gallery above.
The pop overload of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1969 is shaping up to part the seas this year, at least when it comes to comics. It’s easily one of the best of the year, from its acid-trip showdowns on the astral plane to its head-nods to The Beatles (er, I mean, The Rutles), Mick Jagger’s literal satanic majesty, and the monochrome comedown of punk rock’s nihilistic birth in the ensuing ’70s.
No matter how much Moore tries to escape comics, we just keep pulling him back in, although he said “the League is my only expression in the comics field, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.”
This in no way suggests Moore is slacking off. In fact, he has been quite busy on a variety of fronts, from transforming his indie print magazine Dodgem Logic into an exclusively online publication to fomenting science-magic escapades with physics geeks like professor Bryan Cox and finishing off his long-awaited literary tome, Jerusalem. Which, if you must know, just so happens to be longer than the Bible.
“There has been a suggestion that I print it on Bible paper,” Moore laughed. “I’m hoping that in the future, in whatever format we put it out, that Jerusalem will become known as the Really Good Book.”
Wired.com interviewed Moore at length by phone, talking about the promise and face-plants of the well-intentioned ’60s in comics and reality, the League’s technocultural exploits in 2009 (and maybe 2109), the rise and fall of the comics industry, metatemporal detectives, psychedelic derangement, why The Prisoner ruled and Lost choked. Read about those things and much more in the spirited interview below.
Pop-Culture Referential Overload, Imminent!
Wired.com: Let’s talk about 1969, the comic and the year. Both were quite a head-trip.
Alan Moore: Well, thank you very much, Scott. Kevin and I hoped that it would have some of the authentic flavor of those years. We wanted it to feel like the fictional equivalent of those times and their drugged extremities. It’s probably the first era in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s chronology for which we actually have memories. Yeah, we did the League in 1958, but I was five, so I wasn’t really taking a great deal of notice of the unfolding culture around me. But 1969 is a bit closer to our time, so we tried to be authentic in the way we imagined the ’60s.
Wired.com: Much of the fun reading the League comes from mapping the intersecting coordinates of popular and literary culture and history. And 1969 has so many great ones, especially in regards to the death of The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones ushering in an era of satanic supremacy, with Mick Jagger as its literal Dark Lord.
Moore: Kevin and I have an incredible amount of fun. At this point, I should make it clear at this point that Kevin is responsible for half of the obscure references. I was doing an interview recently and was forwarded a question from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen annotator Jess Nevins asking if 1969 was an attempt to kill him. And I fielded the question saying that it might be an attempt to kill him, but that Kevin was probably more responsible for his ultimate demise. I’m trying to pass the blame to my collaborator, you see.
But however many suggestions I include in my scripts, there are always going to be some characters in the background when I get the artwork that I’m going to be on the phone to Kevin asking, “Who’s that guy? He looks kind of familiar.” And Kevin will always tell me, although I’m sure there are some that I haven’t spotted. So the readership should be heartened if there are some references they are not spotting.
But hopefully the story is strong enough, even if you don’t get all the references. That’s the way we tried to make it. But it is an incredible amount of fun not so much referring to these things, which anyone can do, but also tying them all together. The way that a rough edge on one story from maybe a film or television can me made to fit almost perfectly with a rough edge from another. You can get some surprising and amusing juxtapositions as a result, which is always a huge part of the fun. Especially in 1969 as well as the forthcoming 2009, of which I’ve seen about a quarter of the artwork and which is even better than 1969 . Kevin just continues to improve, like a fine wine.
Dropping Acid for the Astral Showdown
Wired.com: O’Neill’s art really is stunning, especially in that acid-trip showdown in the astral plane during the Stones’ post-Jones concert in Hyde Park. That was something else.
Moore: As background for that scene, it should be remembered that this writer had actually experienced psychedelic derangement at the Hyde Park festivals, although not the Stones concert. I was actually at the Canned Heat concert, which followed after the Stones a couple weeks later. But Kevin, on the other hand and to the best of my knowledge, has never imbibed any form of drug in his entire life. Which makes one sort of worry when you see what he’s actually done in 1969.
All right, yeah, I was kind of providing suggestions for the melted-looking layout and echoing speech bubbles. But when I saw what Kevin had done with it, that wonderful double-page spread with the statue of Hyde, and reality forming into a tunnel around the edge of the pages, it was just fantastic.
‘Kevin, on the other hand and to the best of my knowledge, has never imbibed any form of drug in his entire life.’
Kevin was also responsible for one of the most poignant images in the book, which was one that I hadn’t thought of. The section right at the end of the aforementioned Hyde Park festival when we see the previously established Jacob Epstein statue of Mr. Hyde from above, and there is a leftover balloon from the festival with the word Love on it floating up to the sky. Beneath us, the statue of Hyde is reaching up with his hands, as if to capture this escaped balloon, which is a perfectly lovely image for the end of both that sequence in the comic as well as the ’60s themselves. That was something that I didn’t ask him to do, but he picked up on it. There are an awful lot of those little moments.
But yeah, I did particularly enjoy the trip sequences and the astral battle, all set to the background of contemporary pop music. It was quite a heavy scene, although it was very colorful, bright and fluorescent in places. Which of course sets you up for the last three pages that take place in punk’s ’70s, which are a bit of comedown or a bum trip, as we used to say. So it worked in all sorts of ways. I couldn’t be more pleased with the job Kevin has done.
Talking Lots of Shit, Folding Like Bitches
Wired.com: I was going to ask you about that Love balloon, and the part of the book where Mina describes “hippie fascism.” I recently watched Adam Curtis‘ excellent All Watched Over By the Machines of Loving Grace, and while he’s not the first to talk about the failed dreams of the ’60s, I am particularly fascinated by how that generation, and its technophilic children, have come to create our surveillance state.
Moore: From my perspective, when writing 1969, I was having to come up with a simulacrum of a time I actually did remember and have emotional connections with. In 1969, I was, what, 15? That was the age at which I began my short-lived psychedelic career, which also ended my school career in the bargain. So my view of that time was a very formative one. It’s an era for which I have an immense amount of fondness. However, I am not 15 anymore, not by a long shot. [Laughs] Not by about 42 years.
So my perspective upon that era has changed. You can find that in bits of the dialogue, such as when Mina Murray tries a bit too hard to embrace the ’60s. As she, Allan Quatermain and Orlando make their way to the Hyde Park festival, she says that they are all looking to the future and being incredibly progressive. And Orlando, who’s been around a lot longer than Mina, points out that no, they’re not. They’re just nostalgic for their own childhoods. Which, looking back, was a big part of the ’60s. It was reflected in a lot of the haunted nursery rhymes of that period, especially in the music of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett.
‘When the state started to take us seriously and initiated countermeasures, the majority of us folded like bitches.’
So my actual feelings about the ’60s are that, yes, of course we had limitations. We talked a lot of shit, and we didn’t have the muscle to back it up. For the most part, we had good intentions. However, we were not able to implement those intentions. And when the state started to take us seriously and initiated countermeasures, the majority of us folded like bitches. Not all of us, but a good number. We weren’t up for the struggle that had sounded so great in our manifestos.
And so, as is reflected in the end of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1969, within a handful of years the optimistic and ostensibly progressive hippie counterculture had all but disappeared and had been replaced by the punk movement. Which was full of incredible energy, but largely borne of anger, frustration and disappointment. And however fantastic those first couple years of punk are, even in retrospect, it was of course a movement largely centered around nihilism. Famously, there’s not really anywhere to go after nihilism. It’s not progressing toward anything, it’s a statement of outrage, however brilliant.
And part of punk was its understandable rubbishing of the values of the culture that had preceded it. At the time, I can remember being around 25 and thinking that punk was a movement that was determinedly anti-hippie, and yes, they had a point to a degree. We certainly didn’t do all we said we were going to do with the world, and we had left them a mess.
My position on punk was that I loved the music and I wanted to be involved in it. But unlike some of my associates, I wasn’t going to go out and get my haircut or spiked up. This was their generation, they were all much younger than me, and they deserved to explore it in their own way. Of course, I found out later that John Lydon was about, what, eight months younger than me! [Laughs] And I think that a couple of The Stranglers were nearly as old as my dad. So actually looking back on it, the ’60s generation, for all its faults and idiocies, was still about the only youth movement that actually resulted in what was, for a time, as intended as a genuine counterculture. It is the only youth movement that I can remember that wasn’t predicated upon rage and destruction! [Laughs]
‘I think that even if the movement of the ’60s never amounted to a genuine counterculture, it was at least an attempt at one.’
In Jeff Nuttall’s wonderful book Bomb Culture, he talks about how, as a reaction to the vaporizing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the generation that followed World War II represented a kind of nuclear nihilism. Over here in England, we had teddy boys slashing cinema seats and police faces. Over there in America, you had the picturesque juvenile-delinquent culture, as represented by The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. These were both in many ways simply reactions to the new state of the world after the development of nuclear weapons.
So I think that even if the movement of the ’60s never amounted to a genuine counterculture, it was at least an attempt at one. That is the only positive response that a youth movement has since made to the questions of our viability raised by the disruption of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So I see the faults, but also the genuine bravery of those times , which have probably received more flak than they deserve. So I call for a balanced approach. Without having seen the new Adam Curtis documentary, although I really enjoyed The Power of Nightmares, I can’t really comment upon it.
Wired.com: It’s very good, although not as amazing as The Power of Nightmares.
Moore: I remember that phrase from Richard Brautigan’s poem, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.” I was a big fan of his in the early ’70s. And I think I can remember similar sentiments from the excellent Michael Moorcock’s run on New Worlds, which was the most forward-thinking magazine that science fiction has ever produced. A lot of the critique of our growing mechanization was actually at its strongest, and arguably at its most perceptive, during the late ’60s.
I remember people like the wonderful John Sladek, who was doing endless amounts of incredibly funny sci-fi stories that seemed to have an obsession with codes and encryption. Of course, at the time, I thought, “What do codes and encryption got to do with the future?” Well, as it turns out, rather a lot!
And the New Wave over here certainly had a thematic connections to the New Wave over there, which would have included Philip K. Dick, who was kind of reaching the end of his line by then. His suspicions — well, let’s call a spade a spade here — his paranoia [laughs] regarding the shifting multivalent realities that our technologies would soon make available to us, was way ahead of the game. It seems to me that whatever the flaws of the ’60s, its counterculture has various pockets of very astute and acute perceptions.