With his legendary run of comic-book writing in the 1980s, writer Alan Moore changed the way we think about superheroes. In emotionally and intellectually complex masterpieces of genre deconstruction like his work on Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke, and Swamp Thing, the lifelong resident of Northampton, England, showed how all of these crime-fighters running around in capes and masks could transcend simple entertainment and instead function as some of our most culturally potent myths. Now 62 years old, Moore is on the very short list of people responsible for why mainstream audiences — and corporations — treat superheroes as very serious stuff.
Despite his status as a comic-book genius, Moore has disavowed some of the genre work — along with its Hollywood adaptations — that made him famous because of what he sees as the shady business practices and shallow creativity of corporate comic-book publishers and the studios behind the characters’ onscreen incarnations. And so he’s spent the last two decades mostly off in his own wild margins, exploring fantastical Victorian-influenced erotica (Lost Girls), occult-informed fictionalizations of the Jack the Ripper story (the truly mind-blowing From Hell), and, among a great many other things, smoking a lot of hash.
Having forever altered the realm of superheroes, Moore is now attempting to do the same with the novel. His new book, Jerusalem, written over ten years, is a nearly 1,300-page attempt to encompass theories of space-time, hallucinogenic children’s adventure, thinly fictionalized personal biography, the surprisingly epic history of the downtrodden Northampton neighborhood in which he grew up, and, well, just about everything else. Which is only a bit more than he touches on in this interview, conducted over the phone from his home in Northampton.
You’ve said in the past that an artist’s job is to give audiences what they need, not what they want. What audience need is being filled by a thousand-plus-page modernist novel built on the idea that all time is happening at the same time?
That’s easy. One of the needs it’s filling is for an alternative way of looking at life and death. I have a lot of very dear rationalist, atheist friends who accept that having a higher belief system is good for you — you probably live longer if you have one. You’re probably happier. So I wanted to come up with a secular theory of the afterlife. As far as I can see, and as far as Einstein could see, what I describe in the book looks like a fairly safe option in terms of its actual possibility.
Which is that everything that can happen has already happened?
So we’ve already had this conversation?
It’s probably more accurate to say we’re always having this conversation. We relive it over and over again, and it’s always the same.
Then let me retroactively and preemptively apologize for that.
It does feel like the conversation’s gone on a bit, doesn’t it?
The arc of your career is pretty wild. You’ve gone from working in maybe the most pop genre, comics, to writing heavy modernist fiction. Has that trajectory felt natural?
The fact that I spent so long in comics was a surprise. Economics was a big part of that, and also things just have a momentum of their own. But my true background is in experimental art, and I was interested in almost everything. I wanted to do some songwriting and I wanted to do some performance, and I have done all those things. I feel genuinely excited about where I’m at now. That’s not how I feel about comics.
Do you buy the idea that culture’s understanding of superheroes has changed since you first took them as your subject matter?
This is not a topic I’m eager to discuss. I will say that when I was a child, from about 7 to 12 reading Superman, comics were an incredible stimulus for my imagination. They were brilliant. They were cheap. They were readily available. I don’t think that superheroes or superhero comics of today are aimed at children anymore.
Who are they aimed at? Teenagers?
I would say it’s considerably older. I think that the average comics reader these days is probably in their 30s, their 40s, their 50s.
Is that a bad sign?
That to me looks slightly unhealthy. People have been saying since the mid-’80s that “comics have grown up.” I don’t think that’s factually true. I think what happened was that there have been a couple of comics that seemed to be reaching for a more mature readership, and that has coincided with the emotional age of the mass audience coming the other way.
So the success of superheroes movies, for example, has less to do with the characters proving that they can be narratively interesting or embodying popular ideas about the culture and more to do with audiences getting increasingly immature?
When I look at the current situation with these superhero movies, I have to wonder.
Put audiences aside. Are you saying that all the mental energy that writers, creators, and thinkers are putting into this stuff is totally bogus?
I am really in a bad mood about superheroes. I’m not the best person to ask about this. What are these movies doing other than entertaining us with stories and characters that were meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of 50 years ago? Are we supposed to somehow embody these characters? That’s ridiculous. They are not characters that can possibly exist in the real world. Yes, I did Watchmen. Yes, I did Marvelman. These are two big seminal superhero works, I guess. But remember: Both of them are critical of the idea of superheroes. They weren’t meant to be a reinvigoration of the genre.
Everybody learned the wrong lessons from your superheroes? This could be the plot of a comic-book story about you.
The superheroes of my youth had dogs that dressed in capes and masks! It’s obvious they stand for nothing other than the power of the imagination. I tend to see a lot of these current figures as the focus of a kind of unhealthy escapism.
What about the idea that these characters are resonating now because they have such broad nostalgic appeal? Or is that appeal more like willful intellectual infantilization?
I can understand the desire to hang on to your childhood, but, it turns out, you can’t. There’s nothing wrong with having fond thoughts about this or that, but you don’t have to carry it with you your whole life like some sort of suit of magic armor. If Jerusalem’s metaphysics are correct, those days of your childhood are perfectly fine where they are. They’re just a little further back along the track.
Beyond something as simple as trying to convey a theory for how time functions, what were your goals with Jerusalem?
I wanted to talk about poverty and class. I understand that that last word particularly is not thought to apply to America. Generally, America sees itself as not having a class system like England, although you kind of actually do. I suspect that you probably have your equivalent of our aristocracy and our working class.
Yep, we do.
Anyway, the thing is that class is massively underrepresented in literature. Most books are written for the middle class, and generally they only have two modes of talking about the working class. The first is a kind of lofty contempt at the vulgarity, the stupidity of those people. The second is a kind of patronizing concern, which paints the working class as nothing but victims. Of course, working people and poor people don’t see themselves like that. Everybody is the hero in their own narrative. That was part of what I wanted to do in Jerusalem — take the working-class area that I grew up in and present a complete picture of what that neighborhood was like, what its conception of eternity was, its history, all of that incredibly rich stuff, which is generally ignored by historians because it’s not the ongoing adventures of church and state. The fabric of history is made up of billions of supposedly unimportant people who are at least as important to the integrity of that fabric as are the kings and rulers. Those rulers seem to be entitled to their own mythologies. Why shouldn’t people from the lower classes be entitled to a mythology of their own?
If the book is also a redemptive project for certain people or a class of people, does it bother you that those people are almost certainly not the people who are going to read it? It’s like you’re preaching, but to the choir of a different faith.
The particular people and the particular neighborhood that I’m talking about, the Boroughs, that’s almost gone. Some of them will be reading the book. But yes, by and large it will be people who are not living in that area or areas like that who will read Jerusalem. However, I started writing this book ten years ago. I had no idea what kind of world it would emerge into or who would be reading it.
How would you characterize the world it has emerged into?
It’s a world where the subject of austerity is hanging over the European continent, driving the political decisions and creating an awful lot of social conflict. My point with Jerusalem is that it doesn’t matter if you come from the Boroughs, because the Boroughs is coming to you.
It’s hard not to think about ideas like that in the wake of Brexit; the notion that something awful is just around the corner, and also this sort of intense identification with a particular piece of land. It doesn’t take much for civic or national pride to tip over into tribalism.
That is very true. I was down in the Boroughs recently with some of my local political-activist friends, doing some rabble-rousing. I noticed that one of the houses down there did have a UKIP poster in the front window, but by and large the Boroughs now is a completely multiethnic community and all the better for it. You can have a sense of pride in where you come from — or pride in Shakespeare or Elgar — without it being racist. Yes, sometimes that pride turns barbaric. I tend to think the difference of intent makes all the difference.
I looked it up the other day: Northampton voted 58 percent to 42 percent to leave the EU. As someone who obviously knows the city pretty well, was that result surprising to you?
Leaving came as a surprise to everybody, even the ones who’d voted for it. People didn’t really expect their “leave” vote to do anything. There was certainly a large amount of xenophobia in the mix. But I’m not saying that everybody who voted for Brexit was a racist or a xenophobe. There were people who voted for what they believed were very strong, solid left-wing reasons having to do with what they have seen as the erosion of democracy. These were valid reasons. But a lot of people found Brexit appealing for the same reasons that I suspect a lot of people in your country find Donald Trump and his idea of building a wall across the Mexican border appealing.
As a means for expressing discontent?
As a wildly misguided protest. This is what democracy looks like now.
Is it too broken to fix?
Personally, I’d prefer something closer to the original Athenian option.
You’re going to have to refresh my memory on the specifics of the Athenian option.
Then I’ll explain. In ancient Athens, in times of debate, if there was a question that needed to be answered on a national level, then a jury would be convened by lottery from the entirety of the population. The jury would have the pros and cons of the case explained to them and then vote. After the debate, the jury would be dissolved and the members would return to the general population.
I’m not sure a system that involves abandoning the practice of long-term political leadership is feasible in the near future.
It’s conceivable, though. Even more than we need people like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, we need a complete overhaul. Did you notice that the refrain used against both Corbyn and Sanders was that they were unelectable? I don’t remember the people being consulted and saying that only conservative politicians of one party or another are the only ones allowed to run our countries now. We need genuine democracy, the definition of which is “the people shall rule.”
How does American politics look from where you’re sitting in Northampton?
What it looks like to you, but between parted fingers. America and Britain have a problem.
What’s that problem?
As I was suggesting: Democracy is broken. I had noticed recent pronouncements from Donald Trump suggesting that if his supporters were to actually attack his protesters then he would pay their legal fees. I also heard when he was suggesting that he couldn’t do anything about Hillary Clinton, but some of the Second Amendment people, maybe they could do something. The idea that a billionaire could relate to the sensibilities of the working class: How could that possibly be true?
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but you should feel free to call Donald Trump “Mr. Brexit” now.
A friend of mine was suggesting that I should batter Donald Trump to death with a copy of Jerusalem. That would be going too far. I can’t actually do anything about Donald Trump, but maybe some of those hardback Jerusalem owners, maybe they could do something.
It’d be a shame to ruin a copy of the book.
It would, wouldn’t it? Go for another big book. Maybe Ulysses.
Fascism and state control are ideas that come up time and again in your work, especially in something like V for Vendetta. Do you feel like we’re further down the path to dystopia now than when you wrote that back in the ‘80s?
I wouldn’t say that. That the world inexorably gets more and more complex. Against that complexity you’re going to get things like fascism and extreme religious fundamentalism. You’re going to get that. In an increasingly complex world all of those people feel that they’re losing ground. Extreme nationalism: This is a reaction to the fact that the very concept of a nation is being eroded. Even the fact that I’m sitting here in Northampton talking to you in New York — this conversation would have been inconceivable to my grandparents. Modern communications and the way ideas spread are making the lines on the map evaporate. ISIS, which whatever else it is, is a post-national movement. Not the one that I was hoping for. When nations break down, identities and mythologies break down. We’re very much approaching a massive turning point in the culture. It reminds me of exactly 100 years ago, at the time of the First World War, when the modern world was just starting to happen.
How is that similar to now?
Something has to happen. Art needs to express the times its audiences are moving through. Our culture has been marking time since about 1990. In our movies most of the franchises seem to be about recycled characters that were created 30 or more years ago.
Including some, like Batman and Superman, that you had a hand in revitalizing. I think it’s fair to say that one of your great gifts to the culture was changing how we think about comic books and superheroes, and then also, intentionally or not, how Hollywood has portrayed them. Given your attitude about all this stuff, do you regret how your work has filtered into the larger culture?
I have disowned all of the work that I don’t own [e.g., V for Vendetta, Watchmen]. I will always love the comics medium. That said, I probably only have about 250 pages of comics left in me to write. With regard to the superhero characters, my opinion is that they were what I was given to play with when I was starting out in the industry. That’s it. It wasn’t as if I had ever expressed any particular desire to do them.
Jerusalem, like a lot of your work, has a pretty brutal scene of sexual violence. You’ve responded before, at length, to people who’ve criticized your use of that sort of imagery. I’m not going to ask you to repeat your response, but I am wondering if the fact that this criticism lingers has made you at all reconsider the way you depict sexual violence?
I would agree that people certainly should be thinking about the way that those acts are depicted.
For sure, but has your thinking changed?
I would hope that it’s become more sensitive, but I would also say that it’s probably hardened. Often sexual violence can be made to seem trivial, and it is not addressed in the straightforward way that other social issues are addressed. Someone else asked me about this, about how I feel about the sexual violence in Jerusalem. I was saying that there actually is an awful lot of sexual violence in the Boroughs. How can you talk about that area and not talk about the subject? It is a huge part of the psychosocial makeup. It’s not like the Boroughs enjoys being the rape capital of Northampton. I think we have to talk about all of these things. How can you push it under the rug?
I hope no one would seriously suggest that artists should never address sexual violence. I think the debate some people are having over your work is about how that violence is rendered.
That should be what the debate is about, how it’s depicted. In Jerusalem, it’s not made prurient. I don’t believe anybody could get excited by reading that. You have to be very careful to not make rape something erotic. I’ve thought this through and I believe as somebody who knows a number of people who have been raped that I have never done anything that I wouldn’t be perfectly willing to show to those people. I trust my moral motives on this. Also, I don’t see why it is okay to show every sort of violence other than sexual violence in graphic detail. Is it better or worse to show rape than to show decapitation with a chainsaw?
I don’t think chainsaw decapitation is quite the problem sexual violence is.
That was a particularly terminal example. But rape is a thing that deserves talking about. That is one of the reasons why I’m including it in my broader body of work — because it is an element that disturbs me. It is an element that is real and that affects the lives of people who are close to me. If people see examples of people who appear to be trivializing rape or using it as an element to spice up what would perhaps be an otherwise-dull story then they should bring that into the debate. Of course, every artist will come to their own conclusions and will stand or fall by those conclusions.
I’m really sorry, but I still don’t think I’m clear on whether your thinking on the issue has changed.
In V for Vendetta, there’s a part where the female character is saying she was going to be “ruh ruh” and she’s not even able to say the word “rape.” That was as close as you could get at the time to the subject. Having to do that made me think about the issue and ways in which I could actually improve. When we did Lost Girls, which is an erotic work, there was a point in the plot that one of the characters is raped. That happens completely offscreen because we didn’t want to confuse people. We didn’t want to suggest that we find rape erotic. As you progress through these different works, your thinking hopefully becomes more sensitive. I’m probably not where I should be on the subject yet.
If you only have 250 pages of comics left in you to write, do you know what you want to spend them on?
I can say that the goal is always, and was from the beginning, to do large work on a large scale.
I always wonder when people write books as long and ambitious as Jerusalem: How do you know when to stop?
The very nature of the infinite novel is that there is no stopping, nor would there be anything that comes next. But the truth, if I’m being completely honest, is that Jerusalem is only a near-infinite novel — despite how its 1,300 pages might feel to some readers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.