“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”
— Don DeLillo, “White Noise”
“The whole thing is a movie,” says Alan Moore. The comic-book visionary behind such epoch-changing works as “Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta” and “From Hell” is actually talking about the war in Iraq. But the statement could sum up his view of the ceaseless complexities of 21st century life, where reality TV and celebrity culture have usurped individuality, and the human body has become not much beyond more information needing to be assimilated.
Every once in a while we are horrified by a beheading (albeit one seen only on videotape) and human culture remembers that it is not much more than a vulnerable collection of flesh, bone and nerve endings. “This is what wars are; it’s not Hollywood,” Moore cautions. But ultimately we return to the womblike safety of our media universe with its push-button wars and Internet porn, where sex and death are hidden behind splashy corporate graphics.
The funny thing is that Alan Moore hates to talk about film and television, because, as he explains later in our interview, both “have a lot to answer for.” He’s not talking about how they’ve distilled his densely researched, intricate tales of socio-historical interrogation, like “From Hell” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” into narrowcasted popcorn movies. Instead, he means the way they’ve had such an impact on human consciousness that many people were only able to articulate the horrific reality of 9/11 by comparing it to a disaster film.
Moore clearly believes that the same mechanism has foisted a deadly, unwanted and unnecessary war upon the world. “Television and movies have short-circuited reality,” he asserts. “I don’t think a lot of people are entirely clear on what is real and what is on the screen.”
Moore, now 50, has a peculiar perspective on this problem of “misrecognition” between fiction and reality — because so many of his works have seemingly anticipated or prefigured so much of what has come to pass. “V for Vendetta,” Moore’s dystopian early-1980s narrative about a future fascist Britain under siege by a notorious terrorist who was subjected to unbearable torture, echoes much of our current dilemma in the so-called war on terrorism, all the way down to the criminalization of homosexuality, the panoptic PATRIOT Act-like surveillance state and a homogeneous media that glosses over real news in favor of sensationalism.
Similarly, “Watchmen,” Moore’s groundbreaking serial that blew the comics genre wide open, unmasked our presumed comic-book heroes as nothing but a set of neuroses and psychoses in action, figures who look the other way (some in protest) as one of their own unleashes a devastating act of terror that kills half of New York’s population — ironically enough, in order to save the world from nuclear annihilation. It is the same kind of warped cost-benefit analysis that, some would argue, led to 9/11 and its resultant wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and who knows where else.
Then there is “From Hell,” a labyrinthine masterpiece of historical research, detective work and social commentary worthy of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” or William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” Moore’s calculated tale of turn-of-the-century England — as seen through the eyes of its prostitutes, public servants and aristocrats — achieves its apotheosis in the birth of the serial killer, which Moore considers one of the 20th century’s key innovations.
There’s so much information to absorb in “From Hell” that it’s almost impossible to gather it in at one sitting. In one 38-page chapter alone, Moore’s Jack the Ripper takes his driver on a city-wide tour of London’s points of diabolical interest, connecting the bastions of secret societies, mythical and true lineages, transcendent architectures, phallic topographies and other landmarks into a pentagram shape. This allegorical voyage, which Moore says he made himself, relying on both recent and ancient maps of London, so terrifies Jack’s driver that he vomits, sick with the realization that he is connected to his culture, his history and his employer in ways he never could have conceived.
The lesson there, as Moore explains it, is that to understand the world one lives in, one has to give “coherence to … complexity, to say that it is possible to think about politics, history, mythology, architecture, murder and the rest of it all at the same time to see how it connects.” And Moore’s work is nothing if not complex. His explorations of the ways humanity deludes and condemns itself have done more to overcome the anti-comics prejudice of the American and European literary establishment than anything else in the comics genre. And he imparts a whole lot more information than Fox News or CNN.
In other words, Moore is not simply one of the finest writers in comic book history. He’s one of the world’s finest writers, period. He’s capable of illuminating postmodern culture’s disorienting information overload as well as any accepted literary genius, whether it’s Melville, Pynchon or Joyce.
When it comes to our current wars for democracy and struggles for identity, Moore has more than a few words to say about George W. Bush, Tony Blair, comics, Ronald Reagan, “Friends,” holy wars, quantum leaps and his own peculiar place in cultural history. I spoke to him by telephone from his home in England.
I find quite a few similarities between the fascist dystopia of your early work, “V for Vendetta,” and our current political situation.
Well, the one thing with writing stories about the rise of fascism is that if you wait long enough, you’ll almost certainly be proved right. Fascism is like a hydra — you can cut off its head in the Germany of the ’30s and ’40s, but it’ll still turn up on your back doorstep in a slightly altered guise. I’d agree that the current situation is particularly alarming. I tend to think that this momentum seems to have sprung up entirely from a group of largely discredited, extreme right-wingers who have been skulking in the shadows since the Ford administration and have suddenly come into the light of day surrounding George W. Bush. I think they’ve overreached themselves, at least I hope that.
And I really hope that people are not morally lazy or weak enough to elect this guy; I won’t say “again” because he wasn’t elected the first time. And it is true to say that across the world there is quite a lot of anti-America sentiment, which is different than anti-American sentiment. I think that even in the majority of Muslim countries that have been polled, nobody blames Americans — they blame George Bush and the people surrounding him. Mind you, we’ll see what happens this November, because you can have someone take over your country once and still have it be an accident. But twice? Well, that would be regrettable. [Laughs.]
When you look back at “V for Vendetta,” do you think the comparison sticks?
I heard someone recently talking to David Lloyd [the artist who illustrated “V for Vendetta”] about it, because there’s still occasional talk about a film. And he said, probably accurately, that the world is not quite ready for a terrorist hero at the moment. But yeah, “V for Vendetta” has had an annoying way of coming true ever since I wrote it in the early ’80s. Back then, I wanted something to communicate the idea of a police state quickly and efficiently, so I thought of the novel fascist idea of monitor cameras on every street corner. And the book was, of course, set in the future of 1997. But by that year — and I don’t know if Tony Blair and Jack Straw were big fans, but evidently they thought its design for future Britain was a really good one — we had cameras on every street corner along the length and breadth of the country. My general thought is that yes, it’s depressing, but not unexpected, when this stuff happens. And I do tend to think that, given the upsurge of the religious right over the last couple of decades, these are the last spasms of those dinosaur organisms.
Why do you think that?
Because they are standing in the way of history, trying to turn everything, politically and spiritually, back to a medieval vision of the world. Whereas they’re perfectly entitled to have whatever worldview they like, I would suggest that humanity is moving in a forward direction. And that any attempt to turn the clock back to a mythical, simpler, or better age would probably be about as effective as Britain’s ancient King Canute, who famously sat on his throne along the tide line and ordered the waves to go back. To be fair, he was only doing this to demonstrate the futility of expecting leaders and rulers to be able to command the forces of history and the world. But yeah, I tend to think that this conservative backlash that has been going on since the ’70s is the final spasms of a dying creature; history is not moving that way, and no matter how much people dig their heels in and assume this is the 1950s or the Middle Ages, that’s not the truth of the situation. No matter how powerful our political and religious leaders think they are, they are as dust before the immense and implacable forces of history and progress. I just hope that they don’t make too much of a mess or take too many more people down with them.
One of the other similarities between “V for Vendetta” and our current situation is that the populace is cowed by fear, to an extent, through the media, whether it’s television propaganda or electronic surveillance.
Of course. One of the reasons we singled out media in “V for Vendetta” was because it is one of the most useful tools of tyranny. We invite it into our own home every night; I’m sure that some of us think of it as a friend. That might be a horrifying notion but I’m sure there are people who think of television as perhaps one of their most intimate friends. And if the TV tells them that things in the world are a certain way, even if the evidence of their senses asserts it is not true, they’ll probably believe the television set in the end. It’s an alarming thought but we brought it upon ourselves. I mean, I think that television is one of the most diabolical — in the very best sense of the word — inventions of the past century. It has probably done more to degrade the mind and intelligence of its audience, even if they happen to be drug addicts or alcoholics; I would think that watching television has done more to limit their horizons in the long run. And it has also distorted our culture.
TV and politics have always made inevitable bedfellows, but the results have been disastrous. Look at the situation we have now. Let’s say that tomorrow someone who is a political genius were to emerge — and I’m not expecting this to happen, but say that it did. Say that a politician emerged who seemed, for once, basically competent, who seemed to be able to do their job as well as the average cab driver, comic writer or journalist. If they were the most intelligent, visionary, humane political thinker in the history of mankind, but were also fat, had some sort of blemish or something that made them less than telegenic, we would not be able to elect them. All we’re able to elect are these telegenic, photogenic crypto-Nazis. As long as they look good. I suppose it’s too early to go into my rant on Ronald Reagan? That would be tasteless.
Actually, I was going to mention him. Especially his recent sanctification by America’s television news media.
[Laughs.] Well then, OK. You’ve got Ronald Reagan — the much eulogized, recently deceased former president — who everyone seems to have forgotten was regarded as one of the most low and treacherous individuals by those in Hollywood that he sold out to the McCarthy hearings. This is someone whose response to the AIDS epidemic was probably responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. This is someone who created Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, or at least set in motion the policies that would create these creatures. This was the architect of much of the world’s present misery. Why did we elect him? Because he had been in a lot of films that some quite liked. We thought him an honorable man because in his films he played a lot of honorable men. I believe there are some who believed he had an outstanding war record. Even Ronald Reagan himself talked with misty eyes about the time he liberated concentration camps, which he may have done in a movie. But Ronald Reagan was out of World War II, fortunately for him, because of ill health. So all of his memories of military service came from movies. I’ve got to say that there are probably better people to elect than film stars.
And now there’s Arnold.
What is it with California? They keep doing it! Who’s next? Is Robert Downey Jr. going to be the governor of California after Schwarzenegger? This is ridiculous. Television and movies have short-circuited reality. I don’t think a lot of people are entirely clear on what is real and what is on the screen. They will take what they perceive as qualities of fictional characters and attribute them to the actor called upon to play them, and then disastrously elect those actors to higher office. I think television and movies have a lot to answer for. It’s when they start to have an impact on our politics that we should become anxious about it. I used to joke a lot after Ronald Reagan was elected that the future probably promised a President Springsteen. Or a President T; you know, “I pity the fool!” Who knows? Unless we get our democratic system overhauled fairly urgently, there is really no telling what manner of monsters or buffoons we’ll have steering us into this still-young century.
It’s amazing how much power media can have if we let it, especially if we’re using it to supplant our political dialogue.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. At the start of this current conflict back in 2001 and 2002 when we were starting into Afghanistan, I said to my girlfriend — Melinda Gebbie, who’s Californian — that I believed there was a possibility George Bush could walk away from this with his political career intact. Because, and this may be a sweeping generalization, the American electorate has a somewhat shorter attention span than the English electorate. There’s a good chance that many people in the American electorate have already forgotten that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, that he was supposed to have weapons of mass destruction ready to deploy in 45 minutes. I think they’re going to forget that they were lied to; there’s a good chance that many of them will forget entirely who they were at war with. That may be doing a terrible injustice to the American electorate, and I hope that I am.
How about Tony Blair?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, I think that the recent savaging Labor was handed at the European Parliament election is purely attributable to Tony Blair having taken us into this war against our wishes. We despise him. He is an object of almost universal hatred. People who voted Labor feel that they’ve been misrepresented, that they’ve been made party to things that they would never in a million years have voted for if they had known that Tony Blair was going to suck up so shamelessly to the American presidency over this. No, I don’t think that we’ll be forgiving him anytime soon. I’d be very surprised if Labor wins the next election with Tony Blair at their head; the fallout from this is going to take several years, even decades; it’s going to take us a very long time to sort out the mess these clowns have made.
I was reading today that NORAD used to run simulations in the late ’90s in preparation for hijacked planes being flown into the World Trade Center. They would have been prepared; they could have sorted it all out. Except that the rules of engagement in such a situation were changed by the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. He changed them so that there suddenly wasn’t a way to cope with planes flying into the WTC. And then to basically use that terrible disaster to validate something they were going to do anyway? Rumsfeld had been talking for years about invading Iraq to safeguard U.S. oil supplies, and all of a sudden he had George Bush, a scion of the Bush dynasty and someone with unresolved issues about the way his dad had been humiliated and laughed at.
Right, he wanted to show the world that you can’t laugh at a Bush. I was reading this excellent book called “American Dynasty,” that gives the whole lineage of the rotten bastards all the way back to Prescott Bush, who was dealing with the Third Reich up until 1942. I mean, it’s not that long ago! We shouldn’t forget these people, or their sons or grandsons. I tend to think that the whole tree is rotten, that’s the only conclusion I can draw. These are dynasties; they carry out the will of the family, which is old, avaricious, power-mad, arrogant. Generation after generation, they see that the family’s will is done. I’m surprised that the Bushes are doing so well over there. You people actually had a war of independence to free yourselves from a dynasty of blue-blooded Georges. I thought that was the whole idea! You were fed up with having a bunch of aristocrats named George ruling your country, but obviously it seems that you can’t get enough of it! [Laughs.]
We’re addicted to them. My chief problem is that he keeps bringing along a bunch of Bible-thumping fundamentalists who are stoking this global holy war we’ve got going on.
Well, that’s because of the alarming influence that Southern Baptists now have upon the American presidency. His language is very often cribbed from the Book of Revelation; it’s obviously very emotive for the religious fundamentalists that make up so much of his base. As far as I understand it, George W. Bush is the de facto leader of the Christian right in America. Pat Robertson kind of stood down, didn’t he? I mean, for the first time you’ve got an American president who’s also a major American religious leader. And it’s a funny kind of religion. I was noticing that Bush’s buddy Rev. Moon — in front of a number or Republican and Democratic senators he declared himself the messiah and savior of mankind.
We don’t have this terrible problem with the religious right that you have over there, and I truly have every sympathy for you. If there’s anything that makes America a laughingstock, it’s those people. America is a huge, surging, relentlessly modern country that will nevertheless send Oral Roberts millions when he tells them that if they don’t, the Lord will send him home. They’ll actually give credence to people who — in any other country of the world except perhaps some of the equally addled fundamentalist Muslim countries — would be laughed at. At the same time, since it’s a crusading religion, it’s difficult for them to accept that some might possibly reject their frankly retarded values. It’s certainly dangerous that you’ve got a president who’s playing pope to all these frightening, God-struck rednecks, which is probably a bit sweeping. But what the hell, I’m in the mood for it.