Fantasy Must Be Sharper: An Interview With Alan Moore

In September, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Moore for this piece in the Irish Independent. It was my second time interviewing Moore - you can read my first, even longer chat with him here - and this time our conversation was supposed to be about his excellent new collection of short stories, Illuminations.

The article I filed cleaved to details of that book, as well as related ruminations on short story writing, fantasy and - given the subject of the collection’s tentpole novella, What We Can Know About Thunderman — yes, the nigh-on unavoidable subject of superheroes within popular culture.

That only scratched the surface of our chat, which lasted an hour and had much more detail besides, taking in topics as diverse as the Queen’s death, the dawning of a new century, favourite short stories, copaganda, and the secret history of post-war British magic’s lost generation.

In honour of Alan’s birthday, please enjoy the full conversation below.

Please note: I have included links to books and stories cited, as well as links to explanatory resources for people mentioned. I have incorporated images to illustrate certain points while supplying full credit to those artists, but will be happy to remove should anyone object.

This interview took place on 14th September. As it was six days after the Queen’s death, I began by offering what little consolation I could to one of Her Majesty’s most doting subjects.

As we speak, we’re all in mourning here in Walthamstow. How are you finding yourself in these sad times?

I’m taking each day as it comes. Being familiar with this country for nearly 69 years now, I have been avoiding any contact with the media or the world since we got the sad news. I figure that give it another a month and it might have died down to a manageable level.

There seems to be a fear within the media that they’re going to get leapt on by a public clamour which does not really appear to exist

I notice that most of my comedian friends are apparently only commenting within a fairly exclusive site where they can avoid getting piled upon by, what have been referred to as, flag-shaggers. I’ve seen there’s been a couple of nice comments. My friend Barney Farmer had noticed that a lot of food banks had been closed for the queen’s funeral, which is of course what she would have wanted. Barney posted a picture of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets giving one of his signature kisses. These are certainly eventful times.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Davey Jones quite a bit recently

Oh, Davey Jones is a genius. I’ve only ever had brief contact with him, back in the 80s when he was working with an anarchist concern called, I think, Blast and I was briefly in touch with them and then I noticed his work coming out in Viz where he’s the author of so many of my favourite strips. I’m genuinely impressed that there’s such an incredible standard of craftsmanship throughout Viz, blinding cartoonists, writers, and creators on that book. I must admit that the only problem I have with Jones’ work — and it’s not any fault of his, it’s purely me — it’s Tin Ribs; the ghastly physical torture that is visited on Mr Snodgrass. Every issue he’s having slices of his skin ripped off [laughs] it’s a bit rich even for my blood!

But The Vibrating Bum-faced Goats, oh man. Yes, Viz is my favourite comic in the world.

Last time we spoke you said the 21st century hadn’t started– six years on, has it yet?

I fear that it has, and that would mean that the tenor of these current times is liable to continue. I hope that’s not the case but since I last spoke to you, it’s not like things have massively improved. I mean, all bets are off after Trump’s presidency and the Boris Johnson years, and whatever we’ll have to put up with under our current straw-haired buffoon.

It seems to me that, when I’m looking at it optimistically, I think that this is hopefully the final stages of a fragmentation process. I suppose the alchemical concept of solve, of everything being broken down by a process of analysis to its smallest parts before the process of coagula — which is putting it all back together again in a hopefully improved form — can begin.

I know a lot of people say the old world cannot die, so the new world will not be born, which I think is true, and is probably as true now as it was whenever someone first said those words. But, I feel that there has been a kind of dissolution, a disintegration process where things like economic certainties, of society, the concept of nations, our private psychologies have been gradually broken down over certainly these last five or six years.

It is to be hoped that these are the final stages of a process of analysis before synthesis can begin. But I’m not sure what the odds would be on that down at Betfred, it is an aspiration rather than a promise.

I suppose one small glimmer in that direction — which refers back to what we began talking about — is that, without putting too much specific magical significance on this particular royal family, might the passing of the Queen mark a psychic shift in how people relate to that institution? That her being replaced by a King who enjoys a slightly less worshipful reverence, might make some of the arguments against the wider institution break through?

That had occurred to me. That this might be the beginning of the end of the Royal Family, which perhaps wouldn’t be before time. It’s about how relevant the Royal Family are to our current state of affairs. I tend to consider that, with or without a monarchy, this country will probably carry on as the conservative/fascist utopia that it has been for a long while.

I’m not sure how much, at least in the 21st century, that was dependent on the Royal Family. It would be a step in the right direction though, if only that.

So, I loved Illuminations-

Oh, thank you, that’s good to hear

Well, let’s get into it. I was struck by something you said when the book was announced, that the short story form is a great place for a writer’s career to begin, and to end. Can you expand on that?

Well, as a place to start it’s perfect, because everything you need to know for writing a longer form work can be learned quickly, and without too much expenditure of energy, by writing short stories. All of the things you will have to do in a gigantic novel, say, you will have to do in a four-page story. You will have to introduce your characters, their setting, their context, the setup — and resolve all of that satisfyingly in a really limited space. Which is not easy, but is at least, quick. You can make your mistakes and you won’t have wasted all of the time that you would have done if you set out to do a gigantic novel and found yourself lacking the skills to complete it.

With short stories, they are each a thing in themselves, they can have their own individual rules, have their own structures, forms of delivery, they can be anything. And they don’t have to sustain themselves any further than they need to. I mean Edgar Allen Poe said his diagram for a short story is that it should be written to achieve one specific effect and once that effect was achieved, the story should end. Which still leaves you quite a lot for room to manoeuvre, but that is a wonderful way to start your career, it will teach you everything you need to know.

It’s also not a bad way to end your career. With the freedom that the short story gives you. Ok, this is just a short story, it’s not a commitment like Jerusalem was, it can be as long or as short as I want. When I was writing the stories that appear earlier in Illuminations, like Location, Location, Location or The Impossibly Complex High Energy State, it was the first time I’d actually written short stories in a long while and it was really liberating, a breath of fresh air. To come up with an absurd idea, or character, and just write as well as I could to express that idea. Once it was expressed, it was finished.

That felt so good, and when I was deciding to put the stories together for Bloomsbury, I really relished the idea of having to do four more stories to finish this off.

I think the first one I did was What We Can Know About Thunderman, which was a very heady rush and ended up as, yeah, it’s kind of a novel.

I was going to say –it does rather test the definition of a short story

Yeah, I think it probably does. I’d originally got conflicting advice about what constitutes a novella, but you know, being me I just progressed ahead on that advice and was then surprised to find that, no, it is a novel. But, at the same time, I do think of it as a short story because it wasn’t constructed like I would have constructed a novel. If I’d had the weight of the word “novel” hanging over the story, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as free or open or radical in the forms the story took. I think it’s a short story, but it’s a short story that got well out of hand.

I should say you performed a magic trick on me. Even while loving all the references and in-jokes as a work of satire, you hacked my brain because there was a point in Milt Finefinger’s timeline of the Thunderman screen adaptations, where I turned to my laptop to look one up on YouTube and see what it was like-

Hahahaha

Which is something I do any time I’m reading something that references old films and records I’ve not heard of. I was livid. It’s like when my four-year-old son is handed a magazine and tries to pinch-zoom the page

[Laughing] Thank you so much for that Seamas, that is an ideal reaction.

So maybe you can assuage my embarrassment and talk a little about how you assembled such a big, complete world for that piece?

Well, it came from a strange place, it came from something I think I have one of the characters in there expressing, which is that leaving comics is one thing — and I’d done that, which seemed like a massive relief — but stopping thinking about comics is another. Especially when you’ve been working at them for forty years, which is a fairly long career by anyone’s standards. So, I tend to find these annoying, often negative, thoughts about comics swirling up in my mind when I didn’t want them there.

And there was also an image that came with them, it was something to do with, I dunno, old copies of Superboy or something like that. Some kind of Curt Swan scene with someone walking across one of those generic midwestern landscapes that used to appear in Superboy and adventure comics. And, coming the other way, there was somebody who was one of the original Legion of Superheroes in their original, twelve-year-old-kid incarnations. And I’d got no idea what this meant but there was a sort of obsessive quality about it.

So, when I was putting together the proposal for Illuminations I thought this would be a good place to actually exorcise some of that stuff as some form of art rather than some angry mutterings in the bath.

In less safe hands, it might have seen like a poison pen letter — and it often is, to its benefit — but there’s so many lovely details which reveal a knowledge of, and affection for, the whole spectrum of those characters. And the names, The Unrealistic Five, Disturbing Tales or my favourite, Indescribable Lass

[Laughs]

The joy of calling a purportedly visual character ‘Indescribable Lass’

And I think when she appears at the end, it’s with a group of other people and it describes all of them and then says “and Indescribable Lass was also there”.

I came up with a two- or three-line pitch for the story, which was a Kafkaesque satire, of one person’s ascent through an imaginary comic book company until he has this, kind of, ultimate revelation of what has been behind that company all along. I thought, yeah, I can get something out of that. And by Kafkaesque satire, I meant something that is indescribably horrible and really grotesque, but where Franz Kakfa was apparently laughing all the way through when he was reading these stories out to his appalled friends.

What I decided was I’ll do this in parts, I’ll just do little sequences as they come to me. I won’t have any expectations; I’ll just see what happens. And I sat down and just started describing this group of comic writers who have a type of weekly supper club, which is a phenomenon I have heard of.

And when I started writing it, I started coming up with these ridiculous names. That was one of the things about Thunderman, there were just these names occurring to me that were kind of absurd but felt right; Milton Finefinger, Jerry Binkle and Brandon Chuff-

It has great mouthfeel, Brandon Chuff

It does, doesn’t it? I don’t know where these names came from, they just occurred to me, full-blown. So I was working through this scene at the diner, I realised things about how it would work out and I concluded ‘that was rather good and I wrote it quite quickly — what should the next bit be?’. And so on throughout the entire book, and I was getting to the point where there were sections I’d written in as possible mini-chapters, and I’m going to have to cross them out because they don’t really feed into the central concerns of the story and aren’t really necessary. To save room, because by that point it was starting to burgeon considerably.

I wrote it in the space of about two or three months. I’ve never written anything of that length as quickly before. The ideas were just occurring to me all the time, the different ways in which I could present them. I had to get help from Joe Brown, in acquainting me with the 21st century by showing me printouts of Reddit comics threads so I could get the general idea of that world.

I did want to say, I had a frisson of joy imagining you on the message boards, or watching hours and hours of Riverdale and Smallville

I didn’t watch any of these things, I faked it all. I think I saw the first couple of Superman films and maybe one episode of a TV series, and faked it all from there. Joe Brown was able to tell me backstory of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which was all filmed, I believe, in Milton Keynes. So, I was able to exaggerate that with Thunderman IV: The Search For Love, with Robin Askwith [laughs].

January 6th actually happens in the book, and we read snippets of what seems to be a literal thesis on superheroes and their appeal, written by Milton Finefinger. His belief is that the hop-skip-and-a-jump between indulging these primary-coloured children’s fantasies and then electing simple-minded, black-and-white populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. I’ve heard you say similar things in the past.

Well, I remember back in 2011 or something, I was doing a series of articles about the Fashion Beast adaptation that was being done by Avatar.

One of the journalists managed by convoluted questioning to basically try and ask me what I thought about superhero films. He came up with an ingenious one; so this is actually adapted from a film script that you wrote for Malcolm McLaren, although in the past you have objected to film adaptations of comics you’ve- and I just said “alright, I know where you’re going — you want know what I think about Superhero films. I haven’t seen any of the films made of my work, I haven’t seen any of these superhero films but you obviously want to know what I think about them”.

I said, for one thing I think it’s a great shame that in the 21st century we’re still having to watch franchises that were originally meant to appeal to the twelve-year-old boys, almost entirely boys, of 50 years ago. I said I also found it socially worrying, because it seems to speak to some sort of infantilisation, some retreat from an overcomplex adult world. A mass retreat, by adults, to a place that was simpler, that didn’t have to think about climate change or economic collapse or the resurgence of populist fascism, or things like that.

I thought that this was worrying because retreats to infantilism are generally precursors to fascism; that desire for a simple solution to really complex problems. The desire to be told that this has all been done by the illuminati, the international banking Jewish banking conspiracy, the underground Democrat paedophile demons drinking children’s adrenochrome underneath the Comet Ping Pong Pizza restaurant in Washington DC. These are all comic book solutions to comic book problems. Donald Trump — The Donald — is a perfect comic book superhero come to save us from the equally ridiculous threat of whatever it was that he was worried about, Mexicans, or underground Democrat paedophiles, whatever it was he was after convincing everybody that this is the terrible threat that is facing you, and saying that here to save you is this equally unlikely hero figure and solution to all your problems. Whether that be Adolf Hitler, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, whoever.

That’s what I was worried about back then, and I think the general response I got was mainly from outraged people who were saying “just because I go to see superhero films, are you saying that I’m emotionally arrested?”. Well, not necessarily, but I’m also not necessarily not saying that. I’m saying when masses of adults queue up to see a superhero film, that’s probably not a good sign, that’s all I’m saying. I’ve got lots of friends who enjoy these films. But as a social phenomenon, it is probably not a benevolent one.

I think you can even make a sideways point about other forms of media; westerns were similarly dominant and were also flattened out versions of how to deal with structures of power in America. The 200+ cop shows that are currently on TV, that tell you that the police are unilateral good guys, also seem to take a complex world of crime, power, violence, or society at large, and flatten them it into overly simplistic whodunnits as a palliative

Which is why The Wire was so brilliant. It actually unflattened things. It was diagnostic, which is the opposite of palliative, looking at something and trying to diagnose it. At the moment, I think that the escapist fantasy that most people seem to be drawn to is worse than palliative, it is actually people trying to bail out from an unbearable material world to somewhere simpler that doesn’t really exist. It’s not a real escape, it can never be one; all of these things are still based in the same material world that we are all currently having immense problems with. I suspect that running away from these problems is perhaps not the best way to fix them.

Fantasy at the moment, a lot of it I have problems with, in that it doesn’t seem to be about anything constructive, it’s purely as a mode of escape, which I don’t think fantasy should be used for. Today, I see more of this — very simplistic good and evil, all the things I didn’t like about Lord Of The Rings in the first place, just replicated across an entire genre. It can be a treacherous, sucking bog, in its current incarnation in that it distracts people from the massive problems of an increasingly fantastic world.

Does that mean it’s the prerogative of the fantasy writer to be less fantastical?

Or to be more fantastical, to actually create something that is a genuinely powerful personal fantasy, that is capable of still affecting people, even in our semi-concussed modern state, where we’ve had so many actually fantastical things happen, it’s different ton achieve a sense of awe or wonder. I think it is beholden to fantasy writers to make their fantasies more powerful, more striking.

I was reading a very, very good book the other day, in fact I have it here so I can read out the title to you. It’s called Our Share Of Night by Mariana Enriquez. She’s an Argentinian writer, and it’s an incredible supernatural horror fantasy, that would stand with the best of that genre, but it’s also about Argentina, and the disappeared, and all of those awful years, decades, and using the vocabulary of horror as the only appropriate vocabulary with which to talk about those things. That is a useful application of fantasy.

I’m not saying that everything has to be about some real-world concern, but fantasy should be much sharper, it should penetratrate real-world issues, real psychological states, it should always have some relevance to the world in which the reader is reading it. Otherwise, it’s going to become a nebulous, drifting dreamworld of impossible escape.

You recommended The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayet last time we spoke and it wrinkled my brain. It does that thing of being a folk tale, a horror story, a dream-

It’s uncomfortably personal, it makes you feel like you’re infected with the same madness that the narrator is enduring

Since we’re talking about short stories, are there others you find yourself returning to of late?

Let me think — Shirley Jackson, I’ve been reading her recently and she was a brilliant writer, the way in which she managed to infect the ordinary with this creeping menace, and sometimes to do so very comically.

I really enjoyed a lot of David Foster Wallace’s short stories, some of them were perhaps a bit obtuse, but some were blinding. One was called Luckily, The Account Representative Knew CPR and it’s all about an encounter in an otherwise abandoned underground car park in a block of offices where a senior executive and an assistant manager who don’t know each other are walking toward their separate cars when the senior executive has a heart attack. But luckily, the assistant manager knew CPR, but it doesn’t play out and that title becomes very ironic. That was a wonderful story and a lot of David Foster Wallace’s stories are great.

I was reading a lot of Ray Bradbury short stories to my grandsons a while back and a lot of them stood up better than I expected, because I think I tended to internalise this idea of Ray Bradbury being overly poetic and had started to think he really wrote like that but looking back at them, they’re really nicely turned. They have the language and sentiments of their times, perhaps, but they were nevertheless a very progressive man.

Angela Carter! Her collection, Fireworks, was a lovely book. Steve Aylett, any of his short pieces, or long pieces — anything. He sent me a pack of cards that he’s done recently, which have all got his perfect little epigrams. And I thought, “I wondered if these would work as tarot cards, and have some revelance to my situation”.

At the moment, as you may have noticed I’ve currently going through a lot of publicity stuff with Bloomsbury for Illuminations. Now, this has been a very agreeable interview but I’m doing quite a lot of them, and it’s starting to get a bit on top of me. So I drew this card from the deck and it said “a claim, and its sticky throne of hooks”. So I thought, ‘”whoah, now that is a functioning tarot deck”.

So any of Steve’s books in whatever form they’re in, you’re guaranteed some kind of synaptic overload. He has a wonderfully inventive choplogic.

Will there be more of these short stories, is there a drawer full of these or you can return to the unwieldy space operas?

I’m probably not going to return to the space operas anytime soon but, for the time being, what I am committed to is a quintet of books I promised, which is the Long London series. I’m about halfway through the first one, which is entitled, at least at the moment, The Great When. I’m having enormous fun with them, when I get the chance to write them, which is one of the reasons why I’m finding the publicity circuit a bit of a pressure, because I’m just aching to get back to where I left Long London.

The first book is all set in 1949 with London pretty much destroyed, in pieces, and the national psychology in a similar state. Everybody important in magic has just died. Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Arthur Machen, Harry Price, Uncle Tom Cobbley, so there’s a gaping hole in English magic and English psychology.

It’s nice to get back into London again, it’s a city that have always enjoyed fictionally. I haven’t been down there for years but to get back into that fictional territory where there are all these figures from the different periods that I’ll be setting the various books in. I suppose those figures are the reason why I wanted to write the book. There’s something in those kinds of liminal characters and their histories and how they all interwove.

I’m talking about people like Prince Monolulu, the imaginary African, who was probably the most famous black man in Britain in his time. He was a racing tipster and he was acting the exotic very skillfully to work his audience.

People like Iron Foot Jack, the King of the Bohemians, with his huge built-up shoe. Austin Osman Spare figures quite prominently, and odd figures like John Gawsworth who was Arthur Machen’s biographer and publisher. Arthur Machen’s a big off stage presence, having died a couple of years before. It’s taking off from some ideas of Arthur Machen’s, along with the way that they overlapped with other bits of London lore and legendary London figures.

So, when might we have that in our hands?

Well, I’m supposed to be handing it in next summer, so I guess roughly a year after that so maybe 18 months’ time.

This is basically me having fun, doing a serious series of fantasy novels which is something I’ve never done before. They’re not fantasy novels about Northampton that have got huge personal significance to me or something like that. This is just an idea that I’ve had and that I’ll progress through series of five books, as if I was a normal writer. It’s quite refreshing in that sense.

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Séamas O'Reilly

Séamas O'Reilly

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Writer: Observer, Irish Times, Guardian, NYT. Former drinks-dispenser to MaryMcAleese. Expert on Steve Bruce books & Rush Hour Crushes.