Alan Moore “The one place gods inarguably exist is in our minds, where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity.”

— Alan Moore,
From Hell

Major Works of Alan Moore

How incredibly unlikely that an eccentric reclusive British hippie occultist who writes comic books would become one of the great figures in the history of literature. But it's true. Alan Moore is my all-time favorite author, not just of graphic novels but of any kind of novel. I say that even as the holder of an English degree from a major university. None of the writers from the recognized literary canon have been as meaningful or as influential for me as this contemporary weirdo who built his fame on illustrated superhero stories. Some might take this as evidence of my vulgar and shallow tastes in reading material. I take it as evidence of Alan Moore's genius.

As a kid I loved comic books, my interest driven by the TV versions of Batman and The Incredible Hulk. When Star Wars came along, I abandoned comics and superheroes to pursue the ways of the Force. Then in junior high school I met some new friends who were into collecting comic books, and they brought me back in. Perhaps to rationalize this hobby that seemed a bit of an immature and nerdy waste of time for a teenager, I developed the conviction that comics could be sophisticated and artistic, when done right. "Adult comics" at that time basically meant trashy rags with sex and profanity, but I began to feel that comics could be more than disposable entertainment. Frank Miller and a select few other artists began to point the way toward comics of significance, but my adolescent dream of the medium's higher potential did not come to fruition until I discovered Alan Moore.

Now, the story of my first encounter with an Alan Moore comic book is actually quite embarrassing. Back around 1984, my best friend Joey was joining me in comic book collecting, although his indiscriminate reading choices met with my disapproval. I clearly recall one day seeing his new purchases that included DC's Blue Devil and Saga of the Swamp Thing, and the chastisement I dished out. Blue Devil was dopey, while Saga of the Swamp Thing was a pathetic revival series DC had done as a tie-in with the crappy movie a couple of years ago, which nobody read. Horror comics? Oh, please.

"Why do you buy that crap?" I said. Joey just shrugged and said, "I don't know, I just like 'em." I tried to persuade him to read high-quality comics, like X-Men or Micronauts or whatever I was into at that time, but he held fast to his own lowbrow preferences.

Saga of the Swamp Thing #26 Shortly after that, I began to hear a lot of buzz about some new writer doing incredible things on Saga of the Swamp Thing. I scoffed. No matter how good the writer is, how could he ever do anything worthwhile with a lame character like Swamp Thing? Finally, once all the hype was too much to ignore, I had to try an issue just to prove that this guy couldn't be as awesome as everybody was saying. And so Saga of the Swamp Thing #26 became my first Alan Moore comic book.

It was excellent, of course. I was hooked and had to track down the previous six Moore issues that I had missed. And this led to a dark realization. Sheepishly, I had to go to Joey and ask if he had any Swamp Things. As fate would have it, that very issue that had earned my scornful rebuke along with Blue Devil was Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, Alan Moore's debut. I traded or paid Joey for it, gladly gobbling up a big old slice of bayou-flavored crow. Joey had been the savvy and sophisticated comics connoisseur all along.

There's really no way to explain Moore to someone who hasn't read his work. As a sample for any neophytes reading this, I'd like to present the text that DC ran as a house ad for Saga of the Swamp Thing. Yes, they actually ran an advertisement with this hefty volume of copy. For a comic book. I've always remembered this ad as the tipping point that convinced me to go buy that first issue. Just sit back and listen to the words of Alan Moore:

This is the place.

It breathes, it eats, and, at night, beneath a crawling ground fog with the luster of vaporized pearl, it dreams; dreams while tiny predators stage a nightmare ballet in sharp black grass. It is a living thing. It has a soul. It has a face.

At night you can almost see it.

At night you can almost imagine what it might look like if the Swamp were boiled down to its essence, and distilled into corporeal form; if all the muck, all the forgotten muskrat bones, and all the luscious decay would rise up and wade on two legs through the shallows; if the Swamp had a spirit and that spirit walked like a man...

At night, you can almost imagine.

You can stare into those places where the evening has pooled beneath the distant trees, and glimpse an ambiguous shifting of the darkness: something large, large and slow, its movements solemn and inevitable, heavy with clotted, sodden weed that forms its flesh. Its skeleton of tortured root creaks with each funeral pace, protesting at the damp and sullen weight. Within their sockets its eyes float like blood-poppies in puddles of ink.

You can inhale through flared nostrils, drinking in its musk, green and pungent. There is the delicate scent of mosses and lichens adorning its flanks. There is the dry and acrid aftertaste of the pinmold that spreads across its shoulders, fanning out in a dull gray rash.

You can stand alone in the blind darkness and know that were you to raise your arm, reaching out to its full extremity, your fingernails would brush with something wet, something supple and resilient.

Something moving.

You shouldn't have come here.

This is the place.

This is the story.

And that only shows you what Alan Moore can do with prose alone. It's when he combines the skill of his words with the images of his artistic collaborators that Moore really starts cooking, producing the kind of storytelling magic that only comics can achieve. Not prose novels. Not films. Not animation. There is an entire vocabulary of creative expression that only comics possess, and Moore is the maestro of the form.

One of the keys to Moore's technique is the wealth of detail in his scripts, legendary for their prodigious length. The old-school "Marvel style" of comics writing calls for the writer to give the artist a basic plot summary, and maybe they have a talk about what's going to happen. The artist breaks down the story into panels, and the writer gets the artwork back to fill in the dialogue balloons and captions. Moore, on the other hand, delivers exhaustive scripts that carry the full burden of storytelling, easily reeling off a dozen or more single-spaced pages of text to describe a single comic book page. He directs the layout of the panels, the "camera angles," the placement of the characters, their expressions, the backgrounds, the lighting, the special effects, all fully imagined and cataloged for the artist to bring to life. This may sound like the method of a megalomaniac control freak, but Moore always assures his collaborators that they can deviate from his visual cues if they find a better way to tell the story through their own artistic choices.

One of the most impressive things about Alan Moore is that, even with his literary stylings and the vast storehouse of knowledge his work demonstrates, he had no formal education. Born in the English town of Northampton in 1953, he was kicked out of school for dealing LSD and never attended college. Moore is the very definition of an autodidact, a voracious reader who has followed a lifelong personal scholarship. Among his favorite books in his youth were comics, and his early aspiratiosn were to be a comic book artist. He got his start in the illustrative side of the publishing business, writing and drawing a cartoon strip for a local newspaper and satirical underground comix for a music magazine. Early on Moore switched to writing instead of drawing, not so much because he felt he was bad artist, but because he was too slow at it. He was depending on his meager comics income to make a living, and he found that he could write quickly enough to make a lot more money than he could from drawing.

Moore found steady work writing short comics stories for 2000 A.D., best known as the home of Judge Dredd, but his big breakthrough came with the 1982 launch of a maverick comics anthology called Warrior. Moore contributed two landmark serials to the magazine: Marvelman, a revival of a little-known British Captain Marvel knock-off, reimagined in a realistic modern style, and V For Vendetta, an Orwellian tale of an anarchic terrorist fighting a fascist regime in the future Britain of 1997. Despite its brilliant contents, Warrior ran aground financially and ceased publication before Moore could finish his series.

Watchmen But Warrior had already brought Moore to the attention of the American comics industry, and DC Comics recruited him. Assigned to the poorly performing Saga of the Swamp Thing, Moore undertook the virtuoso performance that introduced him to American readers like me. His success at DC led to his most famous work, Watchmen, an ambitious and densely layered meditation on what it would really be like if superheroes existed. The aftermath of Watchmen would set Moore's career in a whole new direction.

Creatively, he felt that Watchmen had exhausted his enthusiasm for superheroes, and he was ready to move on to other territory beyond the confining genre of spandex crimefighters. Watchmen also ended his working relationship with DC Comics. Moore felt that DC had swindled himself and co-creator Dave Gibbons out of the ownership of the series, and he also opposed a ratings system for mature content that DC was considering. So he wrapped up his contractual obligations and vowed never to work for DC again.

It seemed that Alan Moore was poised to take over the world. Riding the mass acclaim of Watchmen, he started up his own publishing company, Mad Love, and announced plans to create new comics exactly the way he wanted, on his own terms, with no compromise. But reality didn't quite pan out to meet these idealistic intentions. The inaugural 1990 release from Mad Love, an intricate work of contemporary non-genre fiction called Big Numbers, only made it for two issues before the whole enterprise imploded. Artist Bill Sienkiewicz quit when the insane complexity of Moore's scripts, inspired by fractal geometry and chaos theory, drove him to his wits' end. Sienkiewicz's assistant was slated to take over as artist, but the challenge likewise defeated him. At the same time, the expenses and hassles of operating a self-publishing venture led Mad Love to fold. Even though Moore famously has the entire 12-chapter saga of Big Numbers plotted out in full detail on a giant sheet of poster paper, he says the series will never see completion, forever remaining the unreachable holy grail of Alan Moore comics.

Meanwhile, Moore had started a couple of new serials for a horror anthology called Taboo, self-published by his former Swamp Thing collaborator, Stephen Bissette: From Hell, an epic examination of the Jack the Ripper case, and Lost Girls, an exercise in "literary pornography" illustrated by Moore's girlfriend. In a repeat of the Warrior debacle, Taboo went out of business and left Moore's series to be completed at different publishers, many years later.

On the occasion of his fortieth birthday in 1993, Moore handled his mid-life crisis in a characteristically eclectic manner by declaring himself a magician. Long interested in the occult, he decided to turn himself over to mysticism and magic as a spiritual belief system. He took up practice as the resident shaman of the Northampton area and began worshipping an ancient Roman snake deity named Glycon. While this all may sound a bit daft, Moore has explained that there's a lot of solid reasoning behind his devotion to magic. He says he has come to understand the creative process as an act of magic: producing something out of nothing, not unlike a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Moore links this with quantum physics and the fringes of science, where the physical universe takes on weird properties that seem magical. As an artist who makes a living from his creativity, he felt it wise to study the source of that creative ability, and magic is his doorway to that knowledge. Moore further espouses the idea that communication itself is an act of creativity and magic, and the human capability of using language and symbols to transfer ideas and information among individuals is a mystical phenomenon. While I'm not prepared to call myself a magician, I have found these concepts to be highly useful in my own way of thinking and my work as a writer.

Moore's magical pursuits led him to pursue new means of expression beyond the comics medium. In 1996 he published his first prose novel, Voice of the Fire, a challenging exploration of a dozen different historical vignettes set in the vicinity of his hometown, from ancient times to the present. Moore also began plying his magical trade in a series of performing art pieces, in which he delivers spoken-word monologues accompanied by music, dancers and visual spectacle. These have generally been intended as singular events, given one live performance only, although Moore has recorded several of them as audio CDs, and a couple have been adapted into comics form by From Hell co-creator Eddie Campbell. I find these records of Moore's magical incantations to be dazzling and wholly unlike any other artistic form.

Then in the mid-'90s, Moore took another unexpected step by returning to mainstream superhero comics, apparently having second thoughts about the genre he had abandoned. The rage in superhero comics at the time was creator-owned publishers like Image Comics, by popular artists who had left Marvel and DC. These comics were uniformly horrible, showing the consequences of narcissistic artists drawing big splashy fight scenes with no regard to telling a good story. The prospect of Alan Moore entering this vacuum of competent writing was intriguing, and I was hoping to see him lay his Midas touch on this subliterate crap, or at least make it into a clever satire. But he didn't. Aside from inventing a series of Marvel pastiches called 1963 and turning Supreme into a tribute to classic Superman, Moore's scripts for these companies were pure journeyman drivel. He was just doing it to keep paychecks coming in while spending time with less profitable projects like his magical works and new chapters of From Hell. This was the dark time for Alan Moore, and I began to fear that his glory days were behind him.

Promethea Moore made a new start in 1999 with the establishment of America's Best Comics, his own imprint at WildStorm Comics. His inspiration for the ABC line was to recapture the thrilling sense of wonder he recalled from the superhero comics of his youth, which was lacking in the "grim and gritty" modern era of superhero that he himself had unwittingly helped to usher in with the success of Watchmen. His new characters were known as "science heroes" instead of superheroes, and while the quality of the books was mixed, they generally succeeded in creating a classic adventure feel without being simply parodies. Promethea arose as the cream of the crop, its initial guise as a conventional fantasy series in the vein of Wonder Woman and Dr. Strange giving way to an elaborate thesis on Moore's personal beliefs about magic. This Trojan horse tactic polarized the book's readership, with many fans crying foul and abandoning Promethea once it became fixated on the Tarot and the Kabbalah, but others like myself were overjoyed to see Moore attempting something of real substance within the context of mainstream comics once again.

But the overriding irony of America's Best Comics was Moore's inability to escape the demons of his past. After the contracts were signed and the work had begun, but before the first books were published, WildStorm was bought out by DC Comics. Someone had to break it to Moore that he was now in the position of working for the company that he had famously disowned forever. With great hesitation, Moore agreed to continue with the deal, given the assurance that he would never have to interact directly with DC and they would not interfere with his books. This turned out to be an empty promise, with DC refusing to publish content as Moore intended on two separate occasions.

Of course that pissed Moore off mightily, but the insult that really got him steaming at this junction was movie adaptations. He had signed away the film rights to From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both works that he owns, and he had nothing to do with the production of these movies, which were poor and abominable, respectively. Moore wasn't so much bothered by the shitty movies themselves, but a ridiculous lawsuit claimed that he had plagiarized someone's screenplay when he wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Moore was forced to give legal depositions over the charges, which he describes as the most painful and humiliating experience of his career. To avoid any such future entanglements, Moore refuses to allow any further movie adaptations of works he owns, and he refuses to have his name associated with films based on his past works that publishers own. That's why he has no credit in the 2006 V For Vendetta, movie, which is kind of a shame since it's the first Alan Moore movie that's any good.

Now that he has wrapped up his work for America's Best Comics and announced his second retirement from mainstream comics, the future is again wide open for Alan Moore. Other than his plans to continue The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at independent publisher Top Shelf Productions, and a second novel entitled Jerusalem, little is known about what he'll be doing next. But I'm sure it will be interesting. This is the guy who fulfilled my teenage hypothesis that comics were capable of being great literature. Without Moore, I probably would have lost interest in comics by the time I was in college and wouldn't still be actively reading them today. And I wouldn't know as much as he's taught me about real magic.

Major Works of Alan Moore
Miracleman (a.k.a. Marvelman) (1982-1989)
With Garry Leach, Alan Davis, John Totleben, et al.
V For Vendetta (1982-1989)
With David Lloyd
Captain Britain (1982-1984)
With Alan Davis
The BoJeffries Saga (1983-1991)
With Steve Parkhouse
The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984-1986)
With Ian Gibson
Swamp Thing #20-64 (1984-1987)
With Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, et al.
"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (1985)
With Curt Swan
Watchmen (1986-1987)
With Dave Gibbons
"In Pictopia" (1986)
With Don Simpson, Peter Poplaski and Mike Kazaleh
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
With Brian Bolland
From Hell (1989-1998)
With Eddie Campbell
Big Numbers (1990, unfinished)
With Bill Sienkiewicz
(Biscuit rating not applicable)

Lost Girls (1991-2006)
With Melinda Gebbie
(Biscuit rating pending)

A Small Killing (1991)
With Oscar Zarate
1963 (1993)
With Rick Veitch, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, et al.
The Moon & Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels
(Live performance, 1994)
With David J and Tim Perkins (audio CD, 1996)
The Birth Caul: A Shamanism of Childhood (Live performance, 1995)
With David J and Tim Perkins (audio CD, 1995)
With Eddie Campbell (comics adaptation, 1999)
Voice of the Fire (Novel, 1996)
Supreme (1997-2000)
With Chris Sprouse et al.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-present)
With Kevin O'Neill
Promethea (1999-2005)
With J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray
Tom Strong (1999-2006)
With Chris Sprouse et al.
Tomorrow Stories (1999-2006)
With various artists
Top Ten (1999-2002)
With Gene Ha and Zander Cannon
Snakes and Ladders (Live performance, 1999)
With Eddie Campbell (comics adaptation, 2001)
With Tim Perkins (audio CD, 2003)
The Highbury Working (Live performance, 1997)
With Tim Perkins (audio CD, 2000)
Angel Passage (Live performance, 2001)
With Tim Perkins (audio CD, 2001)
"This Is Information" (2002)
With Melinda Gebbie
The Mirror of Love
With Jose Villarrubia (2003)

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