Creating Comics: A Turn of the Millennium Interview with Alan Moore, Part One

Alan Moore. Photo by José Villarrubia

Photo by José Villarrubia

First published on the Engine Comics web site way back in 2002, this wide-ranging interview with Alan Moore specifically about writing comics with Daniel Whiston is a fascinating read, and we’re delighted to have permission to re-publish it here on downthetubes, with Daniel’s permission.

Aside from Alan’s advice on writing comics, the first interview touches on his views, then, on digital comics, what DC might do with Watchmen without him, and other topics that make for an interesting look back at the work of this much-respected author, talking at the turn of the century… I’ve included links to some more recent interviews with Alan at the end of this feature.

Part One: 9th September 2002

Having been graciously invited to his Northampton abode by the World’s Greatest Comics Writer, myself (Daniel Whiston) along with David Russell and Andy Fruish had a long and fascinating meeting with the Enlightened One, surrounded as we were by shelves groaning under the weight of books and comics, walls covered with mystic paraphernalia from throughout the ages, and a constant fug of smoke.

Having introduced ourselves (and established that the Dictaphone was indeed working), an intense two-hour introduction to Alan’s methods, opinions and writing approach followed…

Daniel Whiston: I feel quite awkward doing this ‘cos I’ve never really interviewed anyone before…

Alan Moore: Well I’m a doddle for interviewing ‘cos I’m completely infatuated with the sound of me own voice… you just have to say a few basic words and I’ll talk for the next hour or two… You prod me if you want me to stop or change to a different subject.

DW: The selfish motivation for me doing this is that I’m starting to try and write myself and would be really interested to get the benefit of your experience so from that point of view I’d be really interested in talking about the mechanics of the craft, and then maybe go on to talk about the higher level creative aspects in a little bit.

Alan: OK.

DW: So maybe we could start off with the nuts and bolts…what’s your approach to plotting, for example?

Big Numbers One - CoverAlan: My approach to most things has been in a state of flux and has been developing over the last 25 years that I’ve been working at this, with regard to plotting for example.

When I started out with this, I was living in a state of such terror that I would get to the end of a story and not have an ending for it, or would not have at least a satisfactory ending for it, that I would plot my stories out almost to the finest detail. If I was plotting a 24-page Swamp Thing story I would have a kind of rough idea of where I wanted the story to go in my head, I would have perhaps vague ideas of what would make a good opening scene, a good closing scene, perhaps a few muddy bits in the middle. I’d then write the numbers 1 to 24 down the side of the page and I would put down a one line description of what was happening on that page.

This kind of developed to the point of mania with Big Numbers .

When I plotted Big Numbers, I plotted the entire projected 12-issue series on one sheet of A1 paper – which was just frightening. A1 is scary – it’s the largest size. I divided it along the top into 12 columns and along the side into something like 48 different rows across which had got the names of all the characters, so the whole thing became a grid where I could tell what each of the characters was doing in each issue. It was all filled with tiny biro writing which looked like the work of a mental patient, it was like migraine made visible, it was really scary.

I mainly did it to frighten other writers – Neil Gaiman nearly shat, the colour drained from his face when he saw this towering work of madness.

I’ve still got it somewhere, I just don’t look at it very often, it doesn’t make me feel good, it’s sort of: “Where was I?”

So. I used to plot meticulously, but I started to get the feeling that plot – if you’re doing something that is very heavily plot-driven: if you’re doing a crime story, if you’re doing a whodunit or something like that where a plot is a very very necessary thing, but some stories where there’s nothing but plot, it does sound like someone walking through a bog, you know: “Plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot… yeah yeah, your plot made sense, but I wasn’t interested in it, I was not interested in any of these characters, your plot hung together but there was no real story”. So I try not to get quite so obsessed with plot.

With the Americas Best Comics that I’ve been doing, along with most of the stuff I’ve been doing lately of any stripe, I’m much more liable to just come up with – it’s not even half-arsed, it’s a quarter arsed idea at best – but it’ll do it for the first couple of pages: “Yeah, that’ll be good, lets have some three-eyed cowboys. I’ve got no idea what they’re going to do in the story, but this issue’s all about three-eyed cowboys. I mean, you might think of a story that’s got three-eyed cowboys in it and hope it comes to some sort of resolution, but it always does.

Voice of Fire by Alan MooreI’ve been working for 25 years now and I can probably bring near enough any story to a satisfactory resolution just because I’ve been doing this every day for 25 years – you get more confident in your ability to bring a story home. So you can ride bareback, and take more risks. That is something I have a great deal of fun with.

I mean, when I wrote Voice of the Fire, I knew that the last chapter being narrated by me would have to be something that was true, and that had really happened, and yet it would also have to tie up all of the themes and motifs of the novel, so it took me five years to write that, and I knew that not only would the last chapter have to really happen, it would have to really happen during the month that I was writing that chapter.

So if it happened that nothing happened that month, and nothing happened that provided me with things like severed heads, you know, black dogs, all of the other motifs, than I would have wasted pretty much five years, because the novel wouldn’t have an ending. I mean that is really high-stakes gambling – but the thrill, when it comes off is really something. But it always comes off.

If you’ve got the nerve, if you can sort of do it without flinching or worrying, then it always somehow kind of comes off, if you just follow the process. I mean, that’s probably something – these days. When I started off, I was all technique, I was obsessed with technique, and I would approach every part of that technique meticulously, trying to think about it, how it might fit together, how it might be changed or modified, what effect you might be able to get by sort of twisting this a degree to the left, this a degree to the right.

These days I tend to find that I kind of improvise with a lot of confidence, and find that the material is often much better, much fresher…

DW: Maybe that’s because you had a technique to start with…

Alan: — and then you can go beyond it, I mean perhaps it’s true to say that to actually get a grounding in the techniques… once you know how all this stuff works, then you can throw away the rulebook, you can throw away the manual and then sort of, just do it, you know, improv…

DW: To someone starting off in my position, what would you say were the elements of that toolkit?

Alan: The first thing is: think about what you are doing, think about every aspect of it. Brian Eno was somebody whose thinking really influenced me when I was starting out. Now he was a musician and I was moving into comics, but his thinking was generalised enough that it applied to a whole variety of fields.

One of the things that he said was that some creative people seem to be governed by a kind of superstitious fear about examining their own creative processes – it’s almost like riding a bicycle, where if they stop to think about how they’re doing it, they’ll fall off.

Whereas my attitude is, if you’re going to be making your living out of this stuff, it’s like if you’re making your living as a driver, you’d at least want to know what happens if the car grinds to a halt, what all that stuff under the hood actually does and is…actually understand your own creative process… think about everything… think about what you’re doing.

If you’re talking about comics writing, then many of the same things apply as with writing in general, but there is a whole couple of other layers to the possibilities because you’ve got an image track as well, and a kind of ‘over grammar’, as I think I once heard it described as, where you’ve got the interaction, neither words nor pictures but the interaction of both of them.

DW: Scott McCloud talks about that quite a bit…

Alan: Yeah, Scott, he’s a clever lad. I’m not sure about his new: “all comics are gonna be online”, I think he’s talking bollocks there…

DW: I think I agree in some ways…/strong>

Alan: It’s academic…he’s pushing it with this second book, there’s a lot of stuff in there which isn’t actually accurate thinking, but his first book’s impeccable.

DW: Maybe that comes from being more of an analyst and less of a practitioner… he hasn’t written as much as he’s thought…

Alan: I think he’s become more evangelist is the word you’re looking for… he’s got very very into this idea of: “everything would be better if it’s on computers,” without actually thinking about any of the practicalities of it…

DW: Like scrolling over the pages of a comic that’s 20 metres wide…

Promethea Volume One #12

Promethea Volume One #12

Alan: You could, and I believe he has actually done a strip especially for that format that can be read in all sorts of different ways, it sounds really cute, a really interesting experiment, I’m sure I’d love to do that once…the thing is, with Promethea #12, looked at materially, it’s exactly the same technology as Action Comics #1 ….it’s a number of sheets of paper with like images and words printed on them and a staple in the middle.

However, Promethea #12 is a complete history of the universe broken down into the 22 Tarot cards, with a commentary in verse, a frieze – the whole thing is one panel, where if you duplicated it and got two copies of it and stuck it all together, yes, it could be put up as a frieze, the ends of the frieze join together so it runs forever. There’s a flipbook worked into the sides of the pages, we’ve got this joke by Aleister Crowley running all the way along the bottom, we’ve got perfect anagrams of the word ‘Promethea’ – 22 of them (laughter) – that fit in perfectly with both the Tarot cards and the era of history we are applying that Tarot card to – now that is a higher technology.

To me, the basic technology is the word, I mean that’s not technology, that is a fruit of technology. The clue with technology is the ‘logy’ bit – technology means writing about a body of knowledge. The word is the mother technology, all technologies are based upon the word, the word is the primal technology. Dealing with language, dealing with being a writer, you’re gonna be dealing with language. If it’s comics, then that will involve a pictorial element, but a lot of the basic things are the same. If you want to learn how to write, be analytical, and that probably means when you’re starting, be reductionist. It’s too big a problem to grasp the whole thing at once, at least at the start of your career. Break it down. Start thinking about the different components of a story.

What things should a story have? It should have a plot, although this doesn’t have to be the most important thing. The plot is the skeleton. Sometimes a beautiful and elegant plot is what a whole story’s about, and that’s great, but sometimes a plot need only be a string of events that takes you from point A to point B or D or whatever.

Now, there should also be what the story is about, which is not the same thing as the plot. What the story is about – what are you trying to say? What kind of shape or impression are you hoping to leave upon the reader? In a sense, the story, or poem or verse or whatever it is you’re writing, you can kind of think of it as a kind of projectile. Imagine it is a kind of projectile which has been specially shaped to be aerodynamic, and that your target is the soft grey putty of the reader’s brain. What kind of shape, what kind of indentation, what kind of lasting scar do you want to leave upon your reader? You design the missile accordingly. What are you trying to convey to them? It’s going to be some kind of information. Now that can be factual information, emotional information, psychological information…it’s gonna be some sort of information…it might be non-linear, it might be more like noise than information…sort of like James Joyce, because actually it’s the noise that holds the most information.

Pure signal is like Janet and John – yes, you can understand everything on the page, but there’s nothing much there worth understanding. Noise – or something approaching noise – is like a page of James Joyce, a page of Ian Sinclair – where there is such a density of information that it almost becomes incoherent, but it is full of information. So, it’s the ways of getting that information across – plot, the story has to be about something, it has to have a purpose, it has to have a shape. It has to have a structure. If you’re going to be really clever, you can maybe get the structure the plot and the theme all to reflect each other in some way – but that’s just being clever.

Watchmen was kind of clever – I was going through one of my clever periods – probably emotional insecurity, I thought: “People will laugh at me ‘cos I’m doing superhero comics. I’d better make ‘em really clever, then no-one will laugh”. (laughter).

So we’ve got all this sort of thing with the metaphor of the clock face, and yes it is a kind of clockwork-like construction – a swiss watch construction – where you can see all the works of it. Different areas where the text reflects itself, different levels – I was showing off.

But you’ll need all of those elements. They don’t all have to be tied up as fussily as that – in fact, I kind of decided after Watchmen that there was no point ever doing anything like that ever again, because having done it once, it would have been silly to have taken it further and done something more complex, when it’s already this sort of elaborate wedding cake of a comic book – you don’t want any more icing on the top.

DW: I remember at the time you were worried that DC might do ‘Kid Rorschach’ or something…

Alan: Well, it was always possible, you never know what DC might do: ‘Blot the dog’ (laughter). So you need these things: then, what you want to do – you’re going to need a world for the story to happen in. It might be the real one, it might be an imaginary one – it doesn’t matter, you’re going to have to make it up in either sense, because there isn’t a real world here, there’s not an objective real world, at least I don’t know anyone who’s ever seen one. There’s a lot of subjective worlds, like in Voice of The Fire where I wrote about this area. You have to be as fantastic in your description, in your imagining of the place as you would be writing about some alien world or some exotic landscape like the swamps of Louisiana or whatever – you have to wring the poetry out of the place – make it real.

Whether it’s real or not, make it real, give it an emotional reality, give it the reality of writing, so when people read it it will conjure a sense of location, of place, of situation. Remember that you’ve got more than one sense – don’t just tell them what everything looks like, tell ‘em what it smells like, tell ‘em what it feels like, tell ‘em what it tastes like. That can give a much more wraparound sense of reality.

Now, characters are the most interesting and mysterious and wonderful part of the writer’s craft in my opinion. Structure is dazzling – you can feel like a real big scientist when you’re doing structure, but characters – they’re strange because you’ll think up some facts, some fragment of a character – it might be a name, it might be a personality, it might be a face, something like that. And once you’ve got that fragment, you think: “What does this suggest? If this is the name, what do they look like?” You put it together like a sort of broken vase, asking: “Now what goes next to this?”, so eventually…

Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

To pluck an example out of thin air, Lost Girls, the thing we’ve got coming out next year, me and Melinda Gebbie. It’s probably quite a good way to describe the writing process, to talk about how that came about, on all the different levels. We decided that we wanted to do something that was erotic.

Why did we want to do that? Well, we decided that there was a need for it, that most erotica – or pornography (and the distinction seems to be largely in the income bracket of the person buying it) – most of it is shit, sadly. It’s ugly on all sorts of levels – aesthetically ugly, physically ugly. Politically ugly, morally…on all sorts of levels…and there’s no reason why that should be.

When you can get people beautifying violence in the cinema…

DW: Any subject can be beautiful…

Alan: Yeah, so why, with very few exceptions, has there never been any great pornographic art? Why has there never been any great pornographic writing that has actually tried to do all the same things that ordinary novels do…

DW: I think that’s people think that it should be ugly and it should be dirty…

Alan: Yeah, there’s something wrong there – we identified a problem there. So, why not do absolutely brilliant pornography that was really horny, really clever, really beautiful, had characters and a story and all the things a regular novel should have. So OK, we cast around for ideas as to how we would do this, and that took a long time, because there were lots of wrong ways of doing it that we considered and thought: “no, that’s wrong” – and that’s gotta be instinct, sort of pick up an idea and try and follow it through in your mind and see where it goes, and if it goes somewhere you’re not interested in, put it down. Pick up another one.

With this idea me and Melinda had, I had an earlier idea that I’d put to one side and shelved, that you could maybe treat Peter Pan as a kind of coded erotic story. I think I’d been thinking about the Freudian notion of flying as a dream metaphor for sex, and I was thinking: “So, Peter Pan, he teaches Wendy how to fly, there’s the island of the lost boys…I could see that that would have had a lot of sexual shadows to it, but I never really thought of what I could do with it other than…

Lost Girls - Clouds

Andy Fruish: What about Hook? (laughter)

Alan: Oh well, we’ve got very good stuff with Hook. I didn’t know what to do with that other than do a rude version of Peter Pan, where you could say: “ah yes, this is going to be section…” and that didn’t really seem to be enough, to sexualise a children’s story, but Melinda was saying that she’d written a couple of stories she’d enjoyed that had had three women characters… that for some reason, she just liked to do stories about three women characters. That was just random input.

But when I kind of connected that idea up with the Peter Pan idea, I suddenly thought: “alright, what if Wendy from Peter Pan is one of the characters?”, and then immediately I thought of Alice and Dorothy. I thought, all right, that’s three different female characters from three different children’s books, what if you had those women meet up at a hotel, or somewhere, and tell each other their stories, and their stories are sexually decoded versions of the stories that they are famous for.

So that sounded like it was going somewhere, it wasn’t there yet, but it was going somewhere. So then I started to look at the dates those stories were written, and try and work out the relative ages of the three women, and what period they could have met, and what ages they would all have been. And I kind of worked it out that round about 1913, 1914 Alice would have been about 60, Dorothy would probably be about 20, 19, something like that, Wendy would probably be middle-aged sort of 30, 35, something like that.

Andy: Middle aged?!?!? (laughter)

Alan: Later youth. She’d probably be in later youth. Certainly not nearly dead. And I suddenly thought: “ok, they can meet in this hotel in 1913”, and then I thought: “1913, that was when the war was kicking off, and there was that Stravinsky performance in Paris of Rite of Spring when there were all the riots, and I thought:

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if this whole story was going on against a backdrop… if we had this story happening in a beautiful place, this sort of art nouveau hotel, where everything is perfect and lovely, it’s erotic, everyone’s f******, you know… it’s a pornotopia. And then as a counterpoint, in the background we have the riots at the Stravinsky concert which to a certain degree show the emotional pitch Europe was at at that time… then we’ll sort of take that on, we’ll show the assassination of Franz Ferdinand… we’ll show everything sort of careening towards war, and pretty much the destruction of European culture, or at least a massive blow to it. All the pretty things get burned.

And I was thinking: “There’s something epic about this, there’s something really stark about sexuality and war, because most of the people who get sent to die in wars are young men who’ve got a lot of energy and would probably rather, in a better world, be putting that energy into copulation rather than going over there and blowing some other young man’s guts out.

It’s a perversion, war is a perversion of sex. Also, you only have to look at things like the language of war, any of these excitable young American pilots coming back from bombing Libya, and they’re saying: “Yeah, we shot our missiles right up their back door”. Homoerotic. They will also, just before they attack somewhere, generally launch a sort of propaganda campaign saying the enemy is a homosexual… they have to make him into a woman. The Ayatollah Khomeini: “Oh yeah, he likes little boys”, that’s what we were saying just before we bombed the shit out of Iran, or were going to, or that Colonel Gadaffi: “He dresses up as a woman”, this was the CIA rumour put around just before we bombed Tripoli…

There’s a lot of connections between war and eroticism, so it struck me that there was a story here where, yes, we could do our original thing of bringing weight and importance to pornography, and there seemed to be a plot there, the three women tell their stories and the First World War happens, and you put those two in juxtaposition against each other.

So all right, then we had to come up with the characters. Now, you might say that the characters were already there, but the characters were already there as little girls whereas we wanted them as women. So we looked at Lewis Carroll’s Alice: what sort of 60-year old woman would she be? She’s obviously the most intellectual of the three girls – she’s also the oddest, she’s the most eccentric…

DW: Did you see Dreamchild?

Alan: Yeah I did, it was a nice take, but then Dennis Potter was a good writer…so what we came up with was this aristocratic lesbian with a laudanum habit, with a very active imagination, who’s kind of lost…something happened to her as a child…she kind of went through the looking glass and never came back. There’s a sort of glass screen – probably something to do with the opium – between her and herself.

We did the same thing with Wendy. Wendy’s very middle class, very maternal, very prim, almost insufferable, priggish, you know… so she’d have got married to a man who was older than her, somebody who worked in the shipping industry and is really boring, who doesn’t represent any kind of sexual threat at all because she had something happen to her, and her response was to shy away from sex and to see it as something shadowy.

(Phone rings and then there is a tea break)

Alan: We were talking about character, and there comes a point, when you’ve done all these things, when you’ve tried to imagine about the character, then you try to imagine a little scene with him or her, and you try and imagine how they move, you try and imagine what their body language is.

One of the things I used to do was to actually act things out in front of a mirror, to actually try and get the body language right and see what it felt like to be that person. I can do all that in my head now so I don’t bother, but when you’re starting out it’s not a bad idea.

“…They might be just made out of words and paper, but their effect in the world can be massive…”

David Russell: Is acting something you used to do when you were younger?

Alan: You couldn’t really call it acting, I used to appear in sketches with the Northampton Arts Lab, which was a sort of experimental kind of arts collective that used to be around back in the ‘60s, they were very popular. Being a method actor, there’s tips you can pick up… both you and an actor are going to have to create a character that is believable… you’re going to have to know the way they talk, the sound of their voice, even if the reader will never be able to hear that because it’s in word balloons or whatever, you wanna know what the sound of their voice is like, you want to know what their phraseology is like. Try and write a few words, see if you get a voice that sounds kind of natural.

When you’ve got all these things, you find there comes a point with the character – probably sooner rather than later – where (this is a cliché, that all writers spout) – where the character comes to life. And that’s not quite it, that doesn’t quite describe the phenomena, although that’s partly it – it’s where the characters first start doing things that surprise you – its sort of when –

DW: Sorry to interrupt, I’ve only just started writing myself but I’ve experienced that myself on a couple of occasions, and it’s rather – odd…

Alan: It’s the sort of thing that leads you to become a magician at the age of 40, (laughter) because you can’t come up with any rational explanation for it… because it’s like the comic writer Alvin Schwartz, who used to write Superman in the ‘50s for DC – I think he wrote the Superman newspaper strip in the 50s? – he also wrote a book called A Very Unlikely Prophet, which is completely mad, but is really interesting, because what he says is, you sit round with the other writers, tossing around ideas for Superman stories, and somebody would come up with an idea: “what if Superman does this, this and this?” – and unanimously, the rest of the group would say: “Superman wouldn’t do that” – and he said that this had happened so many times that he’d thought: “Hang on, Superman isn’t real, what do we mean ‘Superman wouldn’t do that?’”. He started to come to the conclusion that there did exist somewhere – some sort of Platonic space, where there was –

DW: Ideational space?

Alan: Idea space is what I’d call it.

DW: My background is political philosophy, where I’ve heard a lot of that talked about – totally different discipline, but say aspects of globalisation…

Alan: Something like Karl Popper with his ‘World Three’, or something like that? A space in which concepts exist?

DW: I think so, but it wasn’t quite as philosophical as that, more of a Marxist school of thinking, in that the important things about globalisation are not what actually happens in the economy – I mean that’s important, but the actual essence of it is nothing to do with that…

Alan: It’s the immaterial structures and things like that that are the important things?

DW: And extensions of those into the world are what we observe, but that isn’t what’s causing it…

Alan: Of course, Marxism is an example of what Karl Popper would have called a ‘World Three’ structure, in that it’s got immense power as an idea, but you couldn’t actually hold up anything in the world and say: “this is Marxism”. You couldn’t even hold up Kapital and say: “this is Marxism”. It’s a book… anyway, what he was saying was that there seemed to be some level – or he and the writers seemed to be behaving as if there was some level, some platonic level, on which these archetypal sort of idea-forms actually existed, where there was a Superman, or some sort of proto-Superman, some sort of er-Superman, who sort of, if a writer came up with a bad idea and he didn’t like it, he’d just say: “no, I wouldn’t do that”.

Now, that is kind of stupid, but it’s kind of true. I’ve worked on Superman, just using that character. If you’re a conscientious writer, you can’t help but feel the weight of myth and history that is connected… it’s like if you were writing Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a massive figure in people’s minds. More massive than a lot of real historical characters – these figures have real weight. They might be just made out of words and paper, but their effect in the world can be massive, if they’ve got the right kind of mass, the right kind of gravity and momentum.

Superman Annual #11, featuring the story "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"

Superman Annual #11, featuring the story “For the Man Who Has Everything”

So yes, there does come this point when characters start talking to you. They’ll start telling you what
they want to do, you’ll know what they would say and what they wouldn’t say. I mean when I started writing Watchmen , I’d got no idea that Rorschach was gonna be dead by the end of it, it was just by about issue three I started to know the character and I thought: “he’s got a death wish”…he’s so self-destructive, he’s clearly…he wants out. There’s no way that he’s gonna live through this, he wouldn’t be able to live with any sort of moral compromises, so he’ll have to die. But it was the character himself who told me that, after two or three issues. I’d got no idea when I started it.

Detail of Rorschach from Watchmen, art by Dave Gibbons

Detail of Rorschach from Watchmen, art by Dave Gibbons

So OK, you’ll have to go through all of these areas – characterisation – they’re all big – you could probably fill a massive book with your thoughts on all of them – sooner or later you get down past – like I say this is reductionist thinking – you’ll break it down into areas like characterisation, plot, ambience, place, location (location location)… all these things… Sooner or later you’re going to get down into the molecules, the molecules and the atoms. This is down to words.

An awful lot of my writing – why it reads well is because I’ve read it before I wrote it. I have read it to make sure that there are no clunky syllables, so that there’s a nice sort of bumdabumdabumdabum there’s a nice sort of rhythm, there’s no sudden three-syllable words where there should have been a two-syllable word, on which the mental voice of the reader will trip.

Rhythms – that was something I learned from performance, with the Arts Lab – if you’re talking in the right rhythm, people don’t even give a shit what you’re saying. The rhythm alone will get everybody hypnotised. And that’s true of written work. Not so much of written work – you have to rely upon the reader reading it in the right way and getting the right rhythm – but you can write so that you can at least guide the reader towards certain rhythms.

If I ever write a book on writing it will probably be called Real Men Don’t Use Thesauri , because no, don’t touch ‘em, I think they’re cheating. What’s wrong with having an enormous vocabulary? What’s wrong with thinking: “oh, there should be a word that means this or that, could it be this, could it be…”…making up a word and checking in the dictionary and seeing if there is such a word and if it meant what you thought it did. That’s better, and alright you can waste an hour trying to get the exact right word that’s got the right kind of sound, the right flavour, the right colour…that fits just perfectly.

DR: Associations as well are important…

Alan: Yeah, because a word sometimes will have completely illogical associations just because they sound like another word…

AF: There’s a sort of synaesthesia going on there…

Alan: There’s an awful lot of synaesthesia, I mean one of the greatest writers, a lot of the greatest writers, one of my favourites, Vladimir Nabokov, he was a synaesthetic… to him, the letter ‘O’ was white, the word ‘Moscow’ was green flecked with gold…olive green, flecked with gold. I can see that. And it’s a good thing to try and develop.

Synaesthesia is a great literary tool. You’ll be able to come up with perfect metaphors that are really striking and strange, because they maybe jump from one sense to another – try describing a smell in musical terms.

Actually, it can be quite easy. Also, it’s how we tend to do things anyway. They’ve just proven that – you know when Jilly Gordon gets on a roll on The Food Programme and she’s talking about: “…it’s a kind of buttery, composty, tractory – I’m getting peat, I’m getting burning tyres…”. Now they’ve done tests – those people who describe the flavour and bouquet of wine, they’re not describing the flavour or the bouquet at all – they are synaesthetically describing the colour. They’re taking visual cues. They did things where they’d put an odourless and tasteless colour agent into white wine to make it look like red wine, and then they’d note the kind of language the wine-tasters were using. When it was white wine they were using: “… buttery, new-mown hay”… you know, yellow, basically, was what they were saying, whereas when it was red wine they were saying: “…its wonderfully fruity, blackcurranty”… talking about red things.

It’s synaesthesia. It’s how a lot of our senses… I think synaesthesia is probably a lot more common than the sensory aberration that it’s made out to be, and there’s probably a key there, somewhere, to how we sense everything. Synaesthesia. There’s something there.

But yeah, it’s when you get down to the words themselves. I mean I’ve got some books here that are incredibly valuable. I’ve got Bibles that are older than America, I’ve got signed books by Aleister Crowley, I’ve got some incredible shit… these are all Golden Door magic wands, that’s Austin Osmond’s Spare Original, these are Dr Dee’s tables… the thing I’d grab if there was a fire is my Random House Dictionary, which is an etymological dictionary which tells you where the words come from so you actually know what you’re talking about. If you use a word like ‘fascism’ you can actually have a look and see: “now where does that word come from, what does it actually mean?”. That’ll save you a lot of embarrassment.

It’s also got a great Encyclopaedia function… it’s a biographical dictionary, it’s got all famous names and obscure names and dates…it’s fantastic. And that is my best Grimoire if you like, my best magic book, because it’s got all the words in the English language and where they come from and what they mean.

If you’re gonna be a writer, you’ll cover all this territory, from the broadest categories down to, like I say, the sub-atomic detail of words and syllables…

AF: And when they get down to quarks and things as well they talk about them in weird terms like ‘strangeness’ and…

Alan: ‘Charm’. I think that ‘quark’ as a matter of fact is from James Joyce, a word from James Joyce…

DR: Finnegan’s Wake…

Alan: What’s the actual quote? “A quark…” I’ve forgotten. Or it might even have some associations with Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the SnarkYeah, you know, this is literally magical territory. Eventually, to learn all this technique you can amass an incredible vocabulary, which will… you’ll get cleverer. The more… as far as I understand it, consciousness is predicated upon language.

Language comes first. It’s not that language grows out of consciousness, if you haven’t got language, you can’t be conscious. You need words for things. You need words before you know what they are, before you can store any information. You need concepts, which are verbal. You need a concept of ‘I’ to start with, and then all the rest. So much of this stuff is made up of language, so much of our reality, our consciousness, everything, is made up of language, that you can study it in so much of its fine details, you can learn all about the techniques.

And remember when you’re learning the techniques, remember what you’re actually doing – don’t kid yourself. If you think there’s a huge amount of difference between you and Paul Joseph Goebbels, you’re kidding yourself. Any form of art is propaganda. It is propaganda for a state of mind rather than a nation-state but it is propaganda nonetheless, and it’s best if you accept that and understand what you’re doing and be honest about it: you are trying to change the mind of your target audience.

You are trying to change their perceptions, you are trying to stop them from seeing things how they see things and start them seeing things the way you see things. The ethics of that we could debate all night (laughter) but basically, the thing is, I can, so I will.

I’m aware of how words can change people/s minds, can change the way people think. So are all of the advertisers, so are all of the politicians, so are all of the people who run our lives. They’re not pulling any punches – I would say that it is beholden unto any writer to equally not pull any punches, on the other side. If you believe something, if you believe something is right or something is wrong then yeah, try and convince other people. Spread the idea around like a designer virus. Make it so that other people will repeat it. This is partly what you’re doing. And you’ll probably have to consider all these aspects of writing…

DR: It’s like some of Richard Dawkins’ ideas about memes.

Alan: Yeah memes, interesting idea. You’re probably going to have to consider all of these ideas – and eventually you’re gonna come up against: the mystery. I mean because there is an essential mystery in writing. It’s like you were saying [to DW] about the first time that characters you’ve created start doing things other than what you’d intended them to. Why do they do that? What do you actually mean when you say that?

These and other things will start to impinge upon you. You will start to notice that, you’ll maybe write some stories and you won’t know where they came from – they were powerful, they were heartfelt, but they didn’t seem to come from anywhere. And then a year later, the events will happen that make perfect sense of those stories if the stories had been written after the events rather than before them.

You get enough things like that and you start to – in my case anyway – you start to – technique, craft, these things have their limitations.

DW: A couple of questions come to mind – I had one initially but another one just popped in. A couple of creative people, one a musician, the other a writer – Stephen King and Shane MacGowan – have both made very similar comments about the fact that they discover what they do rather than create it from within themselves, necessarily. I think Stephen King’s talked about writing as archaeology, finding things together and dusting them down, Shane MacGowan’s talked about: “songs are floating in the air, and it’s my duty to grab them before some cunt like Paul Simon does”.

Alan: Ha-ha, good point about Shane. R.A. Lafferty, when I asked him: “Where do you get ideas from?”, and he said: “Ideas are like pumpkins, they just float through the air, and hit people on the head”. It’s a similar idea. I’ve noticed – and this is an experiment that perhaps a lot of other writers could try: start writing upon a subject upon which you don’t know very much, or about which you have no opinions. Start writing.

You will find that you’ve not got something perfectly planned in your head and you’re writing it down, you’ll find that the words are forming practically at your fingertips on the keys of the typewriter, the ideas are forming, ideas that you never had before. Juxtapositions are occurring to you. Your mind goes into a very different state. If you actually notice this – you can write certain different types of prose, which can leave your mind in a state every bit as altered, as say psychedelic drugs.

Because our entire universe is made up of consciousness, we never really experience the universe directly we just experience our consciousness of the universe, our perception of it, so right, our only universe is perception. All of our perceptions are made up of words. You alter the words, you alter the perception, you alter the universe. And if you actually look back you come, as I did, to a point where craft no longer really cuts it, where you want something more than craft. Yes, you know skilful ways of persuading people to your argument or things like that, but that’s not good enough. That is when you come up against a point like I did. Where I started to look at the archaic notions of writing. Not writing theory as it is now – let’s look at what writing used to be. And of course, if you start looking at it, after a while it’s obvious that writing must have had its origins in magic, in that anyone who’d got command of written language, would have had supernatural powers.

“…Text-messaging or The Sun, these are perfect Orwellian ways of limiting the vocabulary and thus limiting the consciousness…”

AF: So in those early times, anyone who had that bigger grasp of language which was in its early stages looked like they were doing something incredible which is why these days…

Alan: They were doing something incredible…

AF: Yes they were, they were, but when we look back…

Alan: The thing is, imagine, the person who first came up with the idea of representative marks, to actually make that huge jump of saying: “Right, there’s a hut – we haven’t got a word for it yet, but – ‘hut’. That’ll be ‘hut’, that’s what we’ll call it – ‘hut’. So that sound means that thing over there, and if I draw this little thing, these lines on the wall – ah – the ‘hut’. In some way they represent, they stand for it.

That is a massive leap of consciousness, from which the whole of the rest of human consciousness springs from that point. That is what distinguishes us from the animals, written language. There’s not much else we do that they can’t, but written language does seem to be a very important point.

So you imagine someone who’d got written language – you could pass you thoughts at a distance, you could remember things, you could fix time – you could remember that: “Hang on, I did this yesterday and that the day before and that the day before…”. You could suddenly start to build a consciousness for yourself, because you’d have words. So yeah, you’d be big time magic.

Now, you see this carried on into the bardic tradition of the Welsh bards, things like that. Now, as I understand it, the bards were feared. They were respected, but more than that they were feared. If you were just some magician, if you’d pissed off some witch, then what’s she gonna do, she’s gonna put a curse on you, and what’s gonna happen? Your hens are gonna lay funny, your milk’s gonna go sour, maybe one of your kids is gonna get a hare-lip or something like that – no big deal. You piss off a bard, and forget about putting a curse on you, he might put a satire on you. And if he was a skilful bard, he puts a satire on you, it destroys you in the eyes of your community, it shows you up as ridiculous, lame, pathetic, worthless, in the eyes of your community, in the eyes of your family, in the eyes of your children, in the eyes of yourself, and if it’s a particularly good bard, and he’s written a particularly good satire, then three hundred years after, you’re dead, people are still gonna be laughing, at what a twat you were.

(break in tape)

Alan: I’ll give a brief recap in case we feel we missed anything. Magic and language are practically the same thing, they would at least have been regarded as such in our distant past. I think it is wisest and safest to treat them as if they are the same thing. This stuff that you are dealing with – words, language, writing – this is dangerous, it is magical, treat it as if it was radioactive. Don’t doubt that for a moment.

As far as I know, the last figures I heard quoted, nine out of every ten writers will have mental problems at some point during their life. Sixty percent of that ninety percent – which I think works out at roughly fifty percent of all writers – will have their lives altered and affected – seriously affected – by those mental problems. I think what that translates to is – nine out of ten crack up, five out of ten go mad. It’s like, miners get black lung, writers go bonkers. This is a real occupational hazard. There’s plenty of ways to go bonkers, some of them a lot quieter, some more insidious than others – drink, heroin, there’s lots of other sorts of things – but this is dangerous – we’re dealing with the unreal. You’re dealing right on the borderline of fact and fiction, which is where our entire world happens. We’re living in a world of fact and we’ve got out heads full of fiction, the characters that we’ve invented for ourselves – we’re all writers, we all invent characters for ourselves, roles in this little play that we’re running in our head that we call our lives.

With a writer, you’re dealing with the actual stuff of existence, you’re playing the God game. All the things that you will have to consider before you write a story are exactly the things God had to consider before he created the universe – plot, characters (laughter) and what’s it mean, what’s it about, what’s the theme here…motifs. A lot of them suns, they’ll do, we’ll put them everywhere – hey, snakes! These are easy… (laughter).

So you’re dealing with dangerous stuff, you’re in dangerous territory. It can… you can start to forget, for example… there’s a great thing in a Jack Trevor Story book, written just before he died. He’s a brilliant writer. There’s one bit where he’s talking to this woman, and she’s telling him about events that have happened, and she says: “Wait a minute, did that happen, or did that happen in my story?” And she suddenly starts to look terrified, and he’s a writer himself so he knows what to do: he walks up, slaps her round the face and says: “What’s your name?” And she sort of, so he slaps her again and says: “What’s your name?” and she gives him a name, and he says: “Right, what’s just happened to you is that you have for the first time confused your real life with your fiction. Don’t worry about this – this is going to happen quite a lot. It’s just important that you remember that you’re a real person, this is your name, that other stuff was stuff that you wrote. Keep the line there”.

But it’s difficult to do, especially if you start messing around and writing self-referential things, like writing a novel about your home town in which you are the final character…

AF: Alan World.

Alan: Alan World – well actually, that was a complete mistake, well not a mistake –<

AF: Well it shows! (laughter)

Art for the unpublished Big Numbers 3 by Bill Sienkiewicz. Script by Alan Moore

Art for the unpublished Big Numbers 3 by Bill Sienkiewicz. Script by Alan Moore

Alan: It was, I just looked through the phone book – all the names from Big Numbers I got from the phone book, and I found A. World and I thought: “that’s good”, and I thought: “Alan”. I could have thought: “Andrew”, but I didn’t, that’s just the breaks.

So, it’s a difficult job. It’s a dangerous job. You’re probably not gonna make any money out of it. Most writers don’t. You go down to W.H.Smiths or Waterstone’s, most of those writers on the shelves, that is not their only job. Yeah all right, Stephen King and Catherine Cookson, Jeffrey Archer, well other than convict and embezzler, most of them have got another source of income. It’s difficult, it’s dangerous, it’s not necessarily good for your mind…I mean the rewards of it are fantastic, I wouldn’t do anything else. To me it is the ultimate job and yes, it has made me more intelligent, because it’s like George Orwell: if you want to make people less intelligent, limit their vocabulary, limit their language, give them a sort of ‘Newspeak’ that’s like –

AF: Text-messaging.

Alan: Text-messaging or The Sun , these are perfect Orwellian ways of limiting the vocabulary and thus limiting the consciousness. So the corollary of that holds true as well. If you want to expand people’s consciousness, give them better language, wider language, new words. Learn to love words, learn to delight over a new word that you’ve found. I mean, looking through New Scientist – the ‘Amygdala’ for example…

DR: Oh yes, the part of the brain to do with fear isn’t it?

Alan: Emotion, all emotion is put through this tiny little bit called the ‘Amygdala’. Or perhaps the ‘Amygda-luh’, I’m not exactly sure how it’s pronounced, but it’s great either way. A phrase I read once in a book – “the annelidin ancestor” – and I thought: “Anneliden, what’s that?”, and I looked it up in a book and I couldn’t find a word ‘Anneliden’, and for about two years I thought: “I didn’t dream that, that must be real, ‘the annelidden ancestor’”.

Eventually I realised it’s a word that’s been kind of coined, based upon ‘annelid’, which is a type of worm. So, ‘the annelidden ancestor’ is kind of like Pichia, one of those flatworms in the Burgess Shale that have got the rudiments of a spine, and thus is an ancestor to anything that’s got a spine. Yeah, words, they’re lovely.

AF: ‘Simulacra’, I like.

Alan: I’m probably a bit dyslexic, I always pronounce it “sim-ul-ac-ra”.

DR: Do you ever pick up the dictionary and start leafing through it?

Alan: Oh yeah, sometimes I sort of: “Look up how many words do begin with ‘N’? There’s not many, I could probably get through that in half an hour”. But you find words like “Xanthic” which means “yellowish” – it’s lovely. You’ve gotta love language, love writing right from the molecular level of words, or even letters: the letter ‘A’ originally had wings.

DW: Aerosmith’s logo’s gone back to that.

Alan: Yeah, well, they’ve always been ahead of the curve (laughter) or a long way behind it. And the letter ‘C’ was the other way round, and was supposed to represent the crescent moon.

Language itself is such a fantastic phenomenon with it’s own fantastic history, you can get involved in writing to whatever depth you want, but the thing is that really you have to kind of remember the best way to do it, with all this that I’ve said about the dangers of madness, treat writing the way that you would treat a god. If you believed in such things, if you were going to devote yourself to a particular god, then that’s the best way to treat it.

Treat it as if it’s not just some abstract idea of a god, treat it as if it was a real god that will maybe, if you do right by the god, will maybe grant all your wishes, will maybe lavish nothing but success and wonder upon you and, if you don’t do right by the god, will begin to fuck with you in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. Treat it like that, and you won’t go far wrong. In effect, that’s what you’re doing.

Writing will consume your life, because so much of writing happens in your head – you don’t need to be ‘at work’, you don’t even need to be awake. You’re not gonna get a respite from writing when your head hits the pillow, you’re not gonna get a respite from writing when you go on a holiday caravan to Great Yarmouth, or anywhere – the moon – you can’t get away from it, it’s in your head. And if it’s working properly, it’s probably obsessive. If you’ve got a story on the boil, and if you’re a writer you probably will have, you’re probably thinking about problems with that story, good things about it that you wanna enhance and make even better, and you’re probably thinking that all the time.

You might be thinking that when you’re having sex. You might be thinking that when you’re eating dinner, you might be thinking that on public transport. This is something that will take over your life. Surrender. Surrender to it right from word one. Don’t fight. It’s bigger then you are, it’s more important than you are, just do what it says. Even if that seems to be completely ruining your life, do what it says. Even if it tells you to do something stupid – if it tells you to jump off a cliff, do it. (laughter).

This is my experience. I mean, when I was 25, I’d got a baby on the way, or my wife had at least, we were living up Blackthorn, it was really shitty, but I had got a job. I was working down the gas board, and it was a regular job. It wasn’t a great job, but with a baby on the way…at which point, writing told me to quit my job, with a baby on the way…

AF: That must have been a tough decision at the time…

Alan: But really, it wasn’t, I hadn’t really got much of a choice by that point, because I was kind of aware what the alternative would be, and I couldn’t stand that, that frightened me, that frightened me more than dooming my wife and baby, which frightened me considerably… it would have just doomed me to something different, if I’d stayed with that gas board job. So yeah, if it said jump off a cliff, do it. It knows what it’s talking about, it’s more intelligent than you are. It knows more about you than you do. Treat it like that, treat it like a god, and you probably won’t go far wrong.

And always try to do your best for the deity that you swore yourself to, and it might reward you. You shouldn’t go into it expecting it to reward you, you just do this for the glory of writing itself. You want to do this for Thoth and for Hermes – you wanna write something that is just that good, just for the glory of writing. And like I say, that’s a completely irrational attitude, but I think at the end of the day, that’s the best one. That’s got me through 25 years.

What was your second question? (laughter)

DW: I feel a bit anally-retentive… we’ve talked about writing a lot, but what about in terms of writing for comics, about writing in collaboration with another creative person, rather than by yourself?

Alan(Gets up and walks away to desk to fetch something and comes back with it). Now this is something that won’t come over on the tape, but you can perhaps reconstruct for your audience.

DW: Using glove-puppets…

Alan: Or give them a brief verbal description…now somewhere in here… (Alan has fetched a battered blue hardback notebook of lined A4 paper; falling apart at the seams, it looks like a family heirloom, Grandfather’s old schoolbook brought down from the attic. He opens it out on the living room floor, and Alan and Dan crouch over it, Alan pointing things out to Dan).

DW: At this point Mr Moore reveals his Grimoire…

The book has tiny sketched-out panels (stick figures basically), laid out quite precisely to form a rough outline of a page from a Promethea script (the scene has two characters in conversation walking down a beach, with a boat on shore in the foreground in some panels). Each panel has a line drawn from it to handwritten dialogue that is accompanied by two reference numbers – one for the page no. and one for the panel number…

Alan: Horrible, tatty book, but what this has got in it is lots of crappy little drawings that are indecipherable to anybody else but me, but which are basically all I need for anything re writing comics. They will give me a breakdown… they’ll just be sort of these pages – these are bits of Promethea – I will break down the page area into a number of panels. Now, I’ve got a simple, mathematical mindless formula that I follow that is – I mean if you look at these little bits of dialogue that go in each of the panels you’ll see that they have little numbers written after each of the lines and what this is is the number of words.

Now, this is basically something that I took from Mort Weisinger, who was the harshest and most brutal of the DC Comics editors during the ‘60s.

DW: A bit of a tyrant, from what I hear.

Alan: Oh Christ, he was a monster, I remember Julie Schwarz telling me – who was a lovely man. He told me about Mort Weisinger’s funeral – and this was probably just an old Jewish joke that he’d adapted for Mort Weisinger – but he said that apparently, during Jewish funerals, there’s a part where people can stand up and spontaneously will say a few words about the departed. Personal tributes, things like that.

So it’s Mort Weisinger’s funeral, and it gets to this bit in the funeral and there’s absolute dead silence, and the silence just goes on and on and on and nobody gets up and says anything and eventually this guy at the back of the synagogue gets up and says: “His brother was worse!” (laughter).

But anyway, Mort Weisinger, because he was the toughest of the editors, I thought: “All right, I’ll take his standard as the strictest”. What he said was: if you’ve got six panels on a page, then the maximum number of words that you should have in each panel, is 35. No more. That’s the maximum. 35 words per panel. Also, if a balloon has more than 20 or 25 words in it, it’s gonna look too big. 25 words is the absolute maximum for balloon size.

Right, once you’ve taken on board those two simple rules, laying out comics pages – it gives you somewhere to start – you sort of know: “OK, so 6 panels, 35 words a panel, that means about 210 words per page maximum”.

DW: And if you’ve got one panel you’d have 210…

Alan: …and if you’ve got two panels, you’d have 105 each. If you’ve got nine panels it’s about 23-24 words – that’ll be about the right balance of words and pictures. So that is why I obsessively count all the words, to make sure that I’m not gonna overwhelm the pictures, that I’m not gonna make – oh, I’ve seen some terrible comic writing where the balloons are huge, cover the entire of the background –

DW: Doesn’t that tend to often happen when you’ve got what’s called the American plot style of scripting which is where the writer basically gives a very broad breakdown –

Alan: I’ve never really got on with that. I can’t see it, it just looks sloppy to me. I mean, I remember once [writer and editor] Archie Goodwin, who I greatly respected, saying it does allow for serendipity. Yeah, I can see that, but I should imagine that as a reward that is probably outweighed by the fact that all the characters, the artist has to give them neutral expressions because he doesn’t know what they’re gonna be saying, or thinking, in those panels, so he has to make them look kind of neutral, a bit constipated, and everything gets sort of blanded out. Whereas, I can control this – I can make sure that everything works, at least in my little crappy drawings, I can make sure there’s not too many words for any panel –

DW: So this number refers to the page and the panel within the page?

Alan: Er yeah, well this is a spread so it’s 18 and 19 5, 18 and 19 –

DW: Oh right, with the staple line in the middle?

Alan: Yeah, that’s it – it’s a nice way to get to grips with a page. As to how you lay the page out, in your suggestions to the artist, that will depend. How much room have you got? What’s the pacing like? One thing to remember in comics – and this is an interesting axiom – space equals time. To convey time in a comic – it’s spatial.

I remember, when I was doing From Hell, where I’ve got the prologue with just the two old guys on the beach, and I’d been doing that in just little panels because I thought, that’s good, keeps it intimate, these little panels just so – one of them says this, the other one says that, the next one just sits down and takes a breather… and then I thought; “All right, I’ll have one of them say: ‘Its getting cold, shall we be getting back?’”.

And then I thought: “Right, they’re right down by the tide line there, and actually it would take them quite a long while to walk back up the beach, and I don’t just wanna suddenly jump to them on the seafront, and I don’t wanna caption saying: ‘Meanwhile, shortly later…’”. So I thought, all right, I’ll just put a big wide panel taking up the whole tier – big picture of the beach at night – and there’s these two little men, walking up the beach and the width of the panel will convey, it took a long while to do this.

All right, it will take the reader three seconds – two seconds – to actually look at the picture and take it in – there’s no words in it – but it will convey time.

The opening page of the From Hell Prologue, which appeared in Taboo #2 in 1989. Script by Alan Moore, art by Eddie Campbell

The opening page of the From Hell Prologue, which appeared in Taboo #2 in 1989. Script by Alan Moore, art by Eddie Campbell

DW: There’s some scenes in Dark Knight where Frank Miller really chops it up, in terms of one scene –

Alan: – where you splinter the action, that is, all of a sudden it’s all happening, it’s happening in slow motion, you see something that would take two seconds, and you do it in 10 panels –

DW: – a drop of water falling while something happens –

A splash page from "The School for Girls", published 19th January 1947. Art by Will Eisner

A splash page from “The School for Girls”, published 19th January 1947. Art by Will Eisner

Alan: Yeah, yeah, that’s it. I think most of what Frank based his stuff upon – on which any aspiring comic writer would do very well to go back to – is Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman – they’re the best. Of their period. They came up with a lot of the devices, a lot of the ideas, that Frank and people elaborated upon. If you look through Eisner, you can come up with so many brilliant ideas that he just throws away. Or probably even better, look back at the early American newspaper strips of the turn of the century.

DW: Dragon Lady and stuff like that?

Alan: No no, before that – [Milton Caniff’s] Steve Canyon was sort of 1940s, Terry and the Pirates , that was all sort of 40s. You go back to 1902, you look at Winsor Mackay

DW: Little Nemo in Slumberland

AlanLittle Nemo in SlumberlandDreams and Rarebit Fiend, you look at Frank King, Gasoline Alley, a sort of deceptively mundane strip, but then you got the Sunday colour supplements which were pieces of art that would stagger you if you came across them in the latest issue of RAW or something like that.

So forward-thinking, so brilliant – I mean there was a thing that I did in Big Numbers 2 which was a thing that I did just for the pleasure of two or three – or the discomfort of – two or three other comic writers who’d be able to see what I’d done. And what this was was that I’d looked at some of the early Frank King’s Gasoline Alley pages where, for the sale of variety, he’d used the whole page as one big image. You’re looking down upon this warren of alleys, and he breaks this down into panels and in each of the panels there is basically a one-off sight-gag, or a one-off verbal gag, that are all happening at the same moment, in this alley.

And I thought: “That’s charming, there’s something lovely about that, wouldn’t it be great if you could have a moving element, that was moving between the panels”. But I thought: “Yeah, I can see his problem here, as soon as you get to the right-hand side of the top row, then the action’s gotta suddenly go to the middle left-hand side –

DW: I guess you could spiral, couldn’t you?

Alan: Well, there are different possibilities – yeah but with a spiral you’re gonna end up in the middle, rather than the bottom left-hand corner which is where you wanna end up – so when I did Big Numbers 2 I came up with this brilliant idea of how you could have a family arguing around a breakfast table, and you could have everyone moving logically – in different directions – panel one, the Mum is, I think she’s, now hang on a minute I think she’s taking a dish off the table, panel two she’s scraping it into a peddle-bin which is just next to the sink, where she’s washing it up, and then panel four she’s putting it in the dish-rack and she’s starting to come down the right-hand side of the kitchen into panel eight.

Meanwhile, you’ve got her husband sitting at the table – there’s the children at the table as well – they’re having this conversation, it all works perfectly – and he gets pissed off with her and storms out down into panel nine, and then walks out of the door into panel 12, where he storms out of the kitchen leaving his wife to come down through panels four, eight and 12, leaving the family looking after him – it’s a brilliant little whirlpool of a scene.

A page from Big Numbers 2, which was inspired by "Gasoline Alley"

A page from Big Numbers 2, which was inspired by “Gasoline Alley”

It was all inspired by Frank King. I thought: “If only I could do what he’d done, but make it a bit cleverer and have moving elements in”.

I’ve done the same in Lost Girls , I’ve got a couple where that problem of having to have the zig-zag line, that’s fine if you’ve got sort of a down view of a path that winds like that or a staircase that will double back on itself, so that that will do the right thing. Yeah, you can do it, but there’s other variations.

DW: Do you think you could do that in any other medium?

Alan: No. Which says that comics is a very versatile medium that’s got possibilities that people have not even begun to touch.

DW: Underlying that, what do you think it says about the technique…

Alan: Why does it work? Why do comics work? Well, you’d have to get into mad theory, but if you want more mad theory, I’d say that the reason comics work – and work they do – I mean, when I was researching Brought to LightI found out that the Pentagon had done tests to see what was the means by which information could be most easily taken in and could be most easily retained – they’d tried straight text, they’d tried text with photographs, they’d tried illustrations with captions, photographs with captions, and they’d tried comics. Comics were best.

A spread from Brought to Light

A spread from Brought to Light

Now, why should that be? Why are comics so brilliant at fixing ideas in people’s minds, getting them across? I would say it’s because the verbal parts of our brains – what used to be called ‘left-brain’ activities before we found out that they’re actually kind of all over the place – you might say that the ‘currency’ if you like – for what used to be called our left brain – you might say that that was the word. Now, our pre-verbal minds – what used to be called the ‘right brain’ – you might say that the currency for that side of the brain – the pre-verbal part – would be the image.

Now, comics might therefore be one of the only forms of art that calls upon you to actually have a kind of integrated experience. Because some people who have trouble reading comics – and there are a lot of people – well, they’ll say: “Do you look at the pictures first or do you read the words?”, whereas if you read comics you know that you kinda do both at once.

You’re taking in the picture peripherally while you’re reading the words, and your eyes will sort of zig around – and you kind of absorb them both at once. And I think —

DW: That synaesthesic thing is the same kind of thing…

Alan: It’s utilising both lobes of the brain, if you like, or what used to be called both lobes of the brain. And it might be that because it’s the only control…alright, films have an image track and they have a sound track, but, big problems: you can’t synchronise.

With a film, you’re being dragged through the experience at 24 frames a second – that’s a given. Even in the most complex films you couldn’t – the reader – even if you’ve got someone saying this line of dialogue just as something happens in the background or something that makes a really ironic connection, then it’s gonna flash by. People aren’t gonna see it: if it’s in a Dave Gibbons-drawn comics page where they can sit and look at and absorb it at their own pace, then you can get layer upon layer of meaning and reference –

DW: Partly because it’s self-paced.

Alan: Yeah, because the reader is in complete control of the experience. It is a medium which not only combines the verbal and visual parts of our minds, but one where we are in complete control of the experience and where because it is so reader-friendly – you wanna check out this panel there to see if there’s any connection – you can just flick back.

You don’t have to rewind the video and then pause it, you just flick back. Easy.

And so it enables the comic book writer, the inventive writer, to utilise all those advantages and come up with really clever structures that would be lost in a film, but when they’re frozen on the page where everyone can see how clever you are for all time, it works perfectly.

[The interview then abruptly ended with Dan and Dave madly scrambling into Andy’s car in an (ultimately-successful) attempt to make the last train back to London. However, Alan graciously invited us back for a second visit as we were still in full flow]

Author’s Note

This interview is copyright Daniel Whiston, 2017; who says “any errors are entirely my fault (having spoken to Alan after the interview was first published, he mentioned a few terms/references that I had transcribed incorrectly – but I never established what they were. He planned to revise the mistakes, but so far hasn’t had time to); this interview previously appeared in Zarjaz.”

Daniel Whiston is a writer of stuff who has a shamefully-minimal online presence. In fact, zero. Which is something he really should do something about. But in the meantime, a well-received lecture he gave on The Relationship Between Comics and Digital Content Design at the UCD15 conference can be downloaded here

He’s also the writer of the continuing misadventures of Neroy Sphinx from FutureQuake Press (“Irreverent, witty and a joy to read… Neroy Sphinx feels like the classic 2000AD saga that never was.’ / ‘…pleasingly reminiscent of the Karma Sutra’).

Web Links

Article-Related Further Reading

The late Darwyn Cooke’s choice of  Eight Eisner Stories Every Fan Should Read

More about Alan Moore

The official Facebook page for Alan Moore
Features posts from several people on his behalf, with his permission

• ‘Show Pieces’ – Film / Book / Soundtrack
by Alan Moore & Mitch Jenkins

Orphans of the Storm

• Electricomics – A Digital Comic Self-Publishing Ecosystem

“In Electricomics, the world’s oldest narrative art form and youngest technology combine as a uniquely 21st century medium, establishing a thought-through toolkit of open-source effects enabling its audience to create digital comics themselves, bringing their vital ideas to an exciting new mode of entertainment and education.”
– Alan Moore 2015

Alan Moore – Wikipedia

The Guardian (8th September 2016) Alan Moore confirms he is retiring from creating comic books

Old Alan Moore Links (Still Active)

• The Alan Moore Fan Site (last updated 2006)

Galerias de Arte (Archived)
Rare Moore related art, Spanish language site

L’eclettico ALAN MOORE fra fumetto, musica (e altro) (Archived)
Moore-related music clips, including March of the Sinister Ducks and the V Theme, Spanish language site:

Alan Moore Comic Strips

• League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Annotations
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen created by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

The V for Vendetta Shrine
V for Vendetta created by Alan and David Lloyd

Marvelman Fan Site (Archived)

Alan Moore Collaborators

Brian Bolland

Eddie Campbell

Dave Gibbons (Twitter)

Ian Gibson (Facebook)

John Higgins

David Loyd

Leah Moore and John Reppion

Bryan Talbot


For Halo Jones, D.R. and Quinch

Avatar Press

DC Comics
For ABC Comics, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Batman: Killing Joke and others

Knockabout Comics
Publishers of Jerusalem and more

Top Shelf Comics
Titles include Lost Girls and others

Digital editions of many Alan Moore books

Amazon’s Alan Moore Page


Blather (2000): The Alan Moore Interview

Suicide Girls (2004): Alan Moore on the Mirror of Love

Believer Magazine, 2013 – Hey You can just Make Stuff Up

The Last Alan Moore Interview? by Pádraig Ó Méalóid (2014)

• Alan Moore on Why Superhero Fans Need to Grow Up, Brexit, and Jerusalem (Vulture, 2016)

• London, Hollywood: If you read only one Alan Moore Jerusalem interview, make it this one (September 2016)

• Northampton Calling: A Conversation with Alan Moore (The World Literature Organisation, January 2017)

• Interview with Alan Moore about science, imagination, and time (BoingBoing April 2017)

My thanks to Barry Renshaw for putting me in touch with Daniel and his permission to re-publish this interview. The first part of this interview appears in print in Alan Moore: Conversations (Conversations with Comic Artists Series), published by Mississippi University

Art for this interview in its first incarnation on the Engine Comics site was originally sourced by Barry Renshaw, Leon Hewitt and Matthew Badham. All images copyright their respective holders, and used for information/review purposes only. No infringement of copyright is intended nor should be inferred

Categories: Comic Creator Interviews, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News

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