When I reach him at his home in Northampton, England, Alan Moore is writing an introduction to a book about the occult. This isn't actually all that unusual, because Moore is an unusual guy. He's deep into magic and shamanism, and it's been said—though not to me—that he's a devotee of the snake deity Glycon. Oh, and he's universally accepted as one of the most influential writers of comics. Ever. All of which he discusses in The Mindscape of Alan Moore, a 2003 documentary that finally appeared on DVD Sept. 30.
The bulk of the film is Moore, with his long hair, his enormous beard, his heavy rings and his mesmerizing descriptions of how to tell stories, his own working-class beginnings and how he delves into the dark places he visits. “I'm a sucker for anything authentically from a grassroots level,” he says of his participation. “I was approached by [director] DeZ Vylenz when he was still at film school. He asked if he could do his final project as a documentary about me, and although I didn't really think of it as anything more than helping somebody, I said yes, if it wasn't going to take more than a day or two.”
The two-disc set intersperses interviews with Moore with psychedelic images, cool music and some of the first pictures of Moore's comic creations on film, along with a passel of extras, including a demonic Easter egg that Moore eagerly sends me off to find.
Alan Moore's participation in any film project is remarkable, since he's disavowed past and future film versions of his work. This includes the crappy Keanu Reeves movie Constantine, the crappy Johnny Depp movie From Hell, the extraordinarily crappy The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and, yes, even the forthcoming film version of Watchmen, which is set for release early next year and which was the biggest draw at this year's Comic-Con.
Watchmen is Moore's best-known work. Released in 1986, it's a superhero deconstruction that is one of the great cultural landmarks of the last 30 years. The only comic book on Time's list of the greatest novels of all time, it changed the horizon of comics, opening doors to what one could accomplish through a medium that had long struggled to be accepted as both art and literature. It's an epic work, set in an alternate reality where Nixon never resigned, where superheroes like Owlman, Dr. Manhattan, the Comedian and Rorshach are very real, very troubled people who helped the U.S. win in Vietnam before public opinion shunted them into retirement. It's the only comic to ever win a Hugo Award, and it's challenging and utterly immersive, blending different alternate futures together via narrative twists that are surprising, tragic and equally hopeless and hopeful. Art Spiegelman's Maus notwithstanding, Watchmen is the Holy Grail of comic books.
Moore has said in the past—and he says so again in Mindscape—that his comics aren't intended to be filmable. Still, that hasn't stopped Hollywood from tinkering with his stories. But the need to turn everything into a movie, Moore says, underlies greater cultural concerns.
“One of the problems that I have with cinema is that it's too immersive for my tastes,” he says. “If I'm reading a book, I'm doing 90 percent of the work myself. Obviously, the 10 percent of the work that the author is doing is vital to my experience, but it's me who is imagining the characters, the sound of their voices, investing my emotional energy in their predicaments. If it's a good enough book, it can be a wonderfully wraparound experience, a complete virtual reality. A film washes over you. You don't have to imagine anything—the film does it for you.”
It's that lack of imagination that Moore sees as a looming cultural crisis. “We've become a bit spoon-fed,” he says. “Almost like baby birds in the nest with our mouths open, waiting for culture to regurgitate from pre-digested worms into open beaks. I think that will have all sorts of repercussions for our culture way down the line. We can already see a kind of paucity in our general cultural imagination. You'll get a TV program like The Wire, for example, and as wonderful as it is, it does tend to highlight how lazy and sketchy other programs tend to look in comparison.”
In fact, that's almost the tragedy of Watchmen. More than two decades later, it's still one of the most important pieces of comic literature of all time. But is that a good thing?
“I was aware that we were breaking a lot of ground,” Moore says. “At the time, I thought that we would be opening up the comic-book medium and, in effect, saying, ‘Look at all these wonderful things that you can do. Why don't all of you other creators go out and try your own groundbreaking?'”
But the industry never really did. While it's been reprised many times, nothing has truly shaken the zeitgeist in the same way as Watchmen.
“[Artist] Dave Gibbons and I certainly didn't want comics to be doomed to 20 years of reruns of Watchmen,” Moore says. “Rather than liberating comics, as had been the original intention, it sort of seems to me in retrospect that, inadvertently, Watchmen placed some sort of massive psychological stumbling block in the middle of the road for the mainstream comic industry that it doesn't seem to be able to get 'round. This is just my own jaundiced opinion that probably shouldn't be taken seriously, but I haven't seen much that really moves beyond Watchmen.”
And that, to Moore, who is essentially out of comics aside from his own imprint, is tragic. “I think that that is a great pity,” he says. “That is not something that I take smug pride in. In my opinion, today's comic-book market, as in so many other areas of the arts and culture, deserves more than stuff that was fresh 20 years ago. Contemporary people deserve contemporary culture. Not re-workings of Sgt. Pepper or re-workings of the Sex Pistols or re-workings of Watchmen. It was certainly never the intention of Watchmen to provide some kind of pinnacle that nobody could get over. I wish that everybody could have moved on.”
And if anyone has moved on, it's Moore. It's true, Watchmen did revolutionize the superhero, but he says he's not certain the superhero industry is a particularly important facet in the great scheme of things. His latest project could end up being a 2,000-page novel set in the roughshod streets of Northampton, where he grew up.
“The broader, human issues that I'm dealing with in my current work seem to be much more relevant and something worthy of getting my teeth into,” he says. “And there's not a costumed hero in sight.”