The Honest Alan Moore Interview – Part 3: On Comics, How to Break Into Comics, and Modern Culture

Welcome to the third and final part of our interview with Alan Moore. In this concluding section, we speak to the Watchmen and V for Vendetta creator about comics, the work he has enjoyed most, the state of modern culture, the trick to making it big in the comics world, the potential of comics as a medium, and how he’d like to be remembered. You can read the previous two parts of this interview at the links below. Yet again, we’d like to thank Alan Moore for his generosity and openness.

Part 1: On Publishing and Kindle
Part 2: On the Occupy Movement, Frank Miller and Politics

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If you were starting out today in the writing world, or even the comics writing world, how would it be different from when you first started out?

Well, when I first started, one of the first things that I realised, when I was making a go of initially being a comics artist and writer, was that the comics field of that time was full of seasoned professionals, who were much better and much quicker at doing the work than I was. What I did was to kind of get in by the back door. I sent in some comic strips to the music paper Sounds, suggesting that I’d do a weekly comic strip. They accepted and that was the beginning of an education. I had to meet a deadline every week, I had to write an episode every week, I had to draw it, and after a few years of that I fortunately realised that I was much better at the writing than I was at the drawing and made a change of career accordingly.

It was a different culture back then. Today, for one thing there aren’t really any music papers around any more. There’s music magazines, but they seem to have a different agenda, although it couldn’t hurt to try. Most magazines, if it’s a good enough comic strip, would probably think “Well it’s only a quarter of a page, half a page, readers do like comic strips…” What I’m saying is whatever you’re trying to do, don’t go to the most obvious place. If you’ve always dreamed of having a story in 2000 AD, probably best if you learn your chops somewhere a bit less well-known, a bit off the beaten track. Then you can hone your talents. You can get a reputation for at least keeping a deadline that might serve you well when you do try sending some work to something that you actually want to pursue. There’s probably equivalents of that these days, but like I say I’m quite cut off from modern culture, I don’t have an internet connection, so there might be places on the web where you can get a bit of a reputation. It’s always good to serve an apprenticeship.

“… whatever you’re trying to do, don’t go to the most obvious place. If you’ve always dreamed of having a story in 2000 AD, probably best if you learn your chops somewhere a bit less well-known, a bit off the beaten track.”

I’ll always say that I was lucky personally in that when I got into comics it was still very much a medium that was largely for nine- to thirteen-year-olds with a few eighteen- or twenty-year-old outlaws. British comics had a quite standard format. They were all anthologies. They were all stories where you’d get a run of five or six or seven different stories that were probably at most five pages in length. Some of them would be longer, some of them shorter. They’d always be the short filler stories, that are very handy for an editor who’s got to fill an issue every week. So this was what new writers were encouraged to do. They weren’t going to trust a new writer with an established character like Judge Dredd, but little short twist-ending stories that could be slotted in anywhere, they were always useful if they were good.

So I would say if there’s some way that you could do an apprenticeship that involves short stories that is probably the best way in. It teaches you so much as a writer. In a short story you have to develop all of the characters, you have to develop the situation and bring it to an interesting conclusion, all in three or four pages. So you have to do all of the things that you will have to do in a bigger work but in a much more constrained space, which teaches you an awful lot that you can then expand should you get the opportunity to turn it into a bigger and more ambitious work.

One of the things about becoming a writer, in the current climate, is the idea of self-publishing. It might have seemed a lot better to me because the prospects for it are more easily available. With the ‘Print On Demand’ books where you don’t have to end up with thousands of unsold copies under your bed, it would at least seem to offer potentially more advantages than getting hooked up with a big company where you will probably end up regretting the acquaintance sooner or later. It’s never easy, but if the quality of your work is good enough, I’ve got a great conviction that it will show through. And if the quality of your work isn’t good enough, and we all start out like that, then with enough self-analysis you can make it better. That’s the process really of being any kind of artist. You start out being able to do what you’re able to do and if you’re diligent and industrious you can improve that. If you just keep at it then with enough willpower and determination you probably will get there. Or you’ll get somewhere.

In the past you’ve talked about the decline of culture, saying “it’s turning to steam.” As individuals, do you think we can reverse this and reclaim culture?

Yes, I think that we can. I think our mistake has been thinking, in the 20th and 21st century, of the big cultural providers, like television or Hollywood, as culture. They’re not. They’re commercial entities which may occasionally or accidentally produce culture. But, they’re not culture. We are culture. Just ordinary people, what they do. You’ve only got to look at all sorts of areas around the world at present to see people taking things into their own hands. That seems to be the trend politically and I think it’s a very good one.

“I think our mistake has been thinking, in the 20th and 21st century, of the big cultural providers, like television or Hollywood, as culture. They’re not. They’re commercial entities which may occasionally or accidentally produce culture. But, they’re not culture. We are culture.”

Taking responsibility for something is generally a good way of gaining some measure of control over it. That’s certainly true when it comes to one’s own life. You take responsibility for it and all of a sudden you have control over it. And I think it extends to other things as well. If we take responsibility for the way we’re governed and the way that we’re ruled economically and the way that the Anonymous and Occupy protesters seem to be doing, then that potentially can have a huge world-changing effect. That’s the same whether you’re talking about politics or whether you’re talking about the arts. If I hadn’t believed that it would be possible for me to have some sort of effect then I’d never have tried. As it turns out, my ideas have been communicated to a fair number of people. But back at the beginning, that was far from obvious. All that you had was your own belief in yourself. So yes, it’s vital that individuals believe that they can have an impact upon society. For one thing, it’s historically true. For another thing, it is the best thing to believe because if you believe otherwise that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is the philosophy of a natural-born slave in many respects.

There are people out there who are doing a lot of work to change things and they seem to be getting some reasonable results. I definitely think it’s within anybody’s power if they are sufficiently determined, if they have sufficient will and they are prepared to work upon any areas of their ability which needs work, their imagination or whatever, all of these things can be improved. I didn’t start out with any of the capabilities that I’ve got now. You can look at my early work and see for yourself. I was an average, undergroundish cartoonist who was just making things up from week to week and hoping that the glaring flaws wouldn’t be too apparent. From that I moved on in quite ambitious stages and, because I kept up that forward impetus, I’ve ended up being able to write some quite complex things that I would never have been able to even conceive of back when I was starting out. So put the work in and believe in yourself, believe in your ability to change yourself, if not the world, because changing the world does actually start with changing yourself. I think any individual can make a difference if they apply themselves and I think to accept a defeatist “Well what are you going to do?” is a sure way of guaranteeing that you won’t change anything, that you won’t achieve anything.

Over the course of your career, what was your favourite project to work on? What made it special for you?

There have been a few, and they all had their charms. I enjoyed working on Promethea. I also enjoyed working upon Lost Girls which was probably just as well as I was working for a long time on Lost Girls. It’s an indication of how enjoyable the process was that we both got through it and were able to keep our interest in it for the sixteen years it took to complete. I’m very pleased with Voice of the Fire, my first novel.

As ever, if you ask me this question at any time, I’d probably say that my favourite is the thing I’m working on at the moment. That’s just the nature of things, the stuff that my head’s wrapped up in at the moment. Which would be Jerusalem. I’m five chapters away from the end. It’s a very lonely process writing a book without a collaborator when you’ve been used to having that back-and-forth, but there is something very pure about it as well and, again, you’ve got responsibility for everything. You can’t just write a description and hope for the artist to make it a pretty, realised thing. You’ve got to create everything. The way the characters look, the way that they sound, the way that the environment looks, the weather, everything. And that is quite exhilarating. Quite exhausting as well, especially if you’re thirty chapters into a thirty-five chapter novel. I’m just about to start chapter thirty-one and I’m sure it will be as exciting a ride as the previous thirty have been.

Do you think comics have reached their full potential?

No, but I think if they ever would I would have to give an ambiguous maybe kind of answer. I think that the comics medium is wonderful and it’s certainly nowhere near reached its full potential. The comics industry has probably long exceeded its full potential and it’s running on fumes for a decade or so now without any original ideas to sustain it. You look outside the mainstream industry and there’s lots of wonderful creators who are doing fantastic, idiosyncratic work often in very poorly paid or precarious situations. That is where the comics medium, where its heart actually is, these days certainly. It’s in the margins. At the mainstream of the field, it looks like a disaster area to me, largely born out of the fact of no new ideas in fourteen or fifteen years. For my part, I’m actively trying to distance myself from comics. There are a lot of other things to explore. Certainly, in terms of the comics industry I really don’t want to be thought of in the same breath as the superhero set-up.

“One would assume that most of the greatest works of comic art are yet to be created. At least you’d hope that is the case.”

There are still thousands of things that comics could do, with an intelligent application of the medium. You could argue that it goes back to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, but in its modern form it’s less than a century old, perhaps just over a century. There’s still been very little done that’s ever matched the work of people like Winsor McCay. A hundred years is nothing in the life of an art form. One would assume that most of the greatest works of comic art are yet to be created. At least you’d hope that is the case.

Have you read any particularly ambitious comic of late?

I haven’t read any comics of late. That’s not to say there aren’t any ambitious comics out there, because as I say I haven’t been reading very much at all. It’s not intended as a slur that I haven’t read the comics that are out there it’s just that I can’t while I’m writing this book, which is a very long process that’s lasted for five or six years. I wouldn’t suspect there’d be anything in the mainstream field. I’m sure that on the margins there are. I understand that Craig Thompson’s new book is very beautiful and he’s a great storyteller.

In terms of your books, and the adaptations of your books, you’ve chosen to stay away from Hollywood. What advice would you give to an indie book company like ourselves about rights, Hollywood, and dealing with big players?

I don’t know if I could advise you. For a small publisher, there are lots of economic advantages to having one of your books made into a film. On the other hand, yourself and your authors, think long and hard about it first. Think about why you’re doing it and then do what you’re going to do. The best advice for anything is keep it as small as possible and that way you’ll perhaps stand a little less chance of getting seriously messed up by some huge leviathan.

I’m not very big on the idea of adaptations. I think if something works great as a book best leave it as a book. It was probably never meant to be a film, or it would’ve been thought of as a film.

“I’m sure that there a lot of people who think that From Hell was basically an exciting Jack the Ripper story with somebody who looks a bit like Johnny Depp. They’ll probably never read the book because most people are waiting for the film. It’s easier.”

There’s a small film project that I’m working on at the moment but this is something that’s not an adaptation of anything, it’s been conceived as a film. Whether it’ll ever see the light of day, who knows, because it’s a very demanding process if you’re doing it on a small tightly-knit level. It’s obviously a lot more difficult than signing all the rights away to some film company and then seeing a film that will be nothing like your book. Yes, it will sell you more copies of your book, it will make you a more widely known proposition but, at the same time, there’s a downside to it as well. I would hate to think that people who’d seen the films made of my books would think that they represented my books, but I’m certain that a lot of people do. I’m sure that there a lot of people who think that From Hell was basically an exciting Jack the Ripper story with somebody who looks a bit like Johnny Depp. They’ll probably never read the book because most people are waiting for the film. It’s easier. I tend to think that the films made of my work are rather to their detriment which is why I’ve severed all connection from them.

How do you want to be remembered?

I don’t really much care, because I won’t be around to glory in it. I don’t know, as somebody who was a good writer, a decent magician and who tried to follow his path with integrity to the best of his ability. And also that I was really sexy. That would do. Put that on the tombstone.

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