We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Northampton – Pádraig Ó Méalóid talks to Alan Moore
I’ve been friends with Pádraig Ó Méalóid years – he’s been heavily involved with the comics and science fiction scene in Ireland (including a fair bit of time organising the major P-Con event, which has been host to many top SF and comics writers and artists) and he writes extensively on both SF and the comics medium, at least when he can tear himself away from watching Stephen Fry on QI. While he’s reviewed and promoted many different comics and books over the years, I know that his particular, personal favourite has always been the works of Britain’s Graphical Wizard in Residence, Mr Alan MooreGlycon, here). When the extreme good fortune to have someone chat to Alan came up, I couldn’t think on anyone better suited.. (he has a Moore-specific Live Journal,
Obviously I’m biased as I’ve been reading Alan’s work since I was a kid sitting with 2000 AD’s Future Shocks and followed him as he’s practised alchemy on the entire medium ever since, but I think Pádraig and Alan have something fascinating for you here, talking about new works like the third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the Lost Girls, touching on earlier material, as well as Alan’s prose work, performance art and his experiences and opinions on dealing with publishers, large and small.
(Alan at a signing at Gosh for the UK release of the Lost Girls, borrowed from Joel Meadows’ blog)
This interview was conducted by phone by Pádraig and it’s quite a long piece, so today we’re presenting the first part of it, with more to follow. I’d like to thank Alan very much for giving up a good chunk of his free time to chat to Pádraig; thanks also go to Top Shelf’s Chris Staros, gentleman publisher, who was kind enough to set the whole thing up for us all and, of course, to Pádraig for conducting the interview and then taking the time to go through the entire long phone conversation and transcribe it (a very time consuming process) so we could share it with our readers. Without further ado, it’s over to Pádraig and Alan:
P: Lost Girls has been out in the States since October 2006, and it’s only recently out in the UK. Was there any surge of interest in it when it was released in the UK, or did it just come out and that was that?
AM: Well there was a certain amount, we’re getting good reviews, it’s apparently selling very well, and the only thing that was surprising was that there was no trouble, either in the American release or the British one, or any of the European ones that we’ve heard of so far. It’s that there hasn’t been – we didn’t know what might happen, and we were certainly prepared to have to defend Lost Girls, perhaps in a court of law and we were confident that we could do that, but…
P: Do you mean on copyright reasons or on content?
AM: With the current moral climate, especially in America where we have, for the first time in decades, the moral majority practically running the country. So we didn’t know, and there’s certainly been far more innocuous book than Lost Girls, I’m thinking of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets…
P: Did that have problems? I didn’t think there was anything particularly peculiar about that, shall we say?
AM: Well, Craig Thompson’s Blankets is one of the most innocuous, sweet, – it’s practically too sweet for my tastes…
P: I know what you mean, it really is lovely, squeaky clean stuff.
AM: It is! And both of those books were seized in a raid in Atlanta, I believe, and they were seized upon by some right-wing senators who presumably wanted to make a big fuss in the papers, and there’s barely any sexual content in them at all.
P: Yes, particularly Blankets, when the whole point is that he was keeping himself pure all the way through.
AM: Well, it’s just a very sweet little story. I believe that there is one scene where they are, a boy and a girl, under a blanket, and this was apparently the brink of obscenity that the senator was trying to stop America from plunging over. There was somebody that Melinda met when she was over there, a proprietor of a store who’d had a terrible situation where I believe somebody had bought a book that had a picture, taken from a photograph, of a drawing of Pablo Picasso working at his easel, naked. And this led to this store owner and his wife, they were ostracised by their community, they had a really horrific couple of years of it, with all these court appearances, and things like that, and yet with Lost Girls, which is very upfront about being pornography, we haven’t had any trouble at all, possibly because we are upfront about it, I don’t know whether that’s wrong-footed people.
P: They can’t really come around and say “Oh my God!” when you’re saying, “Yes, we actually knew this is what was in it. We put it in it!” I’m living in Ireland, and we come from a very repressive regime with the Catholic church, not terribly long ago, and it’s just odd to me that I can go into a shop and I can buy it now, and there’s no problem, – it’s on a high shelf, which means only tall people can read it – but we have changed here, and I’m seeing America where you’d imagine they should be more liberal, more outgoing, than we are, but no, not a bit of it.”
(a spread of the Lost Girls, borrowed from the Top Shelf site)
AM: It’s very strange the way that Lost Girls just seems to be… over the radar?
P: One of the things you were supposed to be trying to set out to do was to, is it reclaim pornography, for want of a better word?
AM: To reclaim it, to rehabilitate it.
P: And do you think that’s worked? Do you think you’ve done anything?
AM: It seems, at least in the case of Lost Girls, there is now an existing piece of erotica or pornography which people, in the debate upon obscenity or pornography, can now point to and say, “What about Lost Girls?” Now if that is all that it’s done – and I don’t think there’s going to be a huge rush of publications like Lost Girls in the very near future because both me and Melinda are very good at what we do, and it took us sixteen-eighteen years, so I doubt there’ll be very many people queuing up to do anything quite like Lost Girls – but, at the same time, Lost Girls exists. It’s a kind of benchmark. I’m not expecting, I don’t know, all of Richard Desmond’s vast array of smutty periodicals to suddenly clean up their act overnight and become aesthetic and intellectual works of art, but, Lost Girls exists.
It’s like when you’ve got people like Angela Carter who, in her book The Sadeian Women, she admitted that there was the possibility she could imagine a form of pornography that was benign, that was imaginative, was beautiful, and which didn’t have the problems that she saw in a lot of other pornography. I think even Andrea Dworkin said the same thing. She said it a bit more grudgingly, but she said that conceivably there was, there could be, a benign form of pornography but she didn’t personally believe that it would ever happen. So that’s what we’ve tried to do. We’ve tried to say, yes, good pornography can exist, and I think that possibly the fact that we called it pornography wrong-footed a lot of the people who, if we’d have come out and said, “well, this is a work of art,” they would have probably all said, “no it’s not, it’s pornography.” So because we’re saying, “this is pornography,” they’re saying, “no it’s not, it’s art,” and people don’t realise quite what they’ve said.
P: Have sales been good? It’s a big expensive three-volume box thing.
AM: It’s very, very reasonable considering the quality of the merchandise. But it still seems to be selling well as far as everything we hear about it. The tiny little local comic shop, Phoenix Comics, has sold thirty copies which, for a book that size, you’d have to sell a lot of Marvel and DC comics…
P: Another thing is that for fiction publishers, hardback fiction is kind of just dropping out of the water. Some of them are not publishing in hardback any more, but there seems to be a big hardback boom in comics.
AM: Well I think this is something to do with the internet. I think that as culture becomes more and more virtual, as more and more things are available online, then I think that in some inverse way the beautiful artefact becomes much more valuable and that was partly why, largely at Melinda [Gebbie]’s insistence, that we made Lost Girls as beautiful an artefact as we were capable of doing. Chris [Staros] asked Melinda what her perfect vision of the book would be, and Melinda was entirely the wrong person to ask that question because she’s got a really vivid idea of all the things she wanted to do with the book, and Chris listened to it all, he took a deep breath, and he said that he’d do his best to actually fulfil that, and he more than fulfilled it.
P: Yes, it’s beautiful.
(two parallel scenes for the price of one; exploring the shadow world of sex and sensuality in the Lost Girls by Alan Moore, art by Melinda Gebbie)
AM: It’s a beautiful piece of work. I think that apparently the hardback collections are about the only thing where you’ve got signs of an increase in sales. The pamphlets are falling by the wayside and you’ve got to suspect that this is probably the future. I would like to see a world in which – it’s a pity that you couldn’t always have had comics that were just for kids, and it’s a pity that they had to change into something that they probably weren’t designed to ever be, but I think that what is likely to happen over the next ten or twenty years is that you’ll have more and more of the traditional comic companies, even the big ones, starting to lose ground against mainstream publishers who have suddenly realised that there is quite a bit of money to be made in hardback graphic novels or whatever you prefer to call them.
P: They’re also giving very good deals to people, I think Bryan Talbot with Alice in Sunderland is very happy with Jonathan Cape.
AM: They seem to be going out of their way to engage a lot of comics talent and you can only suspect that this trend will continue and it’s good. What I would like to see in an ideal world is for the large comic companies to be taken down a peg or six. It might be nice if they got back to producing cheap genuinely entertaining stories for children. I don’t think that’ll happen, I don’t think they’ve got a way back there.
P: I think that with the big comic companies, the ways they did things – which I think I saw you describing as from their gangster beginnings – when they just said, “we want all the rights to everything and that’s it in perpetuity.” Now recently a little chink in that some of the rights to early Superman were given back to Jerry Siegel’s family. Did you hear about that?
AM: I heard something – there’s several different cases, including the rights to Superboy.
P: Superboy is a separate issue, I think, but apparently will be seen as arising out of this. I think it’s just a tiny thing, where they have said, “for this particular point, this particular thing, we say that you have the rights,” because apparently an act of Congress recently said that anything that people sold the rights to before 1978 they’re now allowed to go back and renegotiate or have another think about what they did, and on the basis of that Jerry Siegel’s family have been awarded back some rights to Superman.
AM: Well that’s good. It’s still probably nowhere near enough, but it’s a chink in the armour, like you say.
P: It’s a start.
AM: Things have changed for comics over this past twenty five years or so. They’ve had a spotlight thrown upon them, and they can’t really get away with the subterranean practices that they’d been happily engaging in since the late thirties, you know what I mean? It was good for them in a certain sense, in that they made lots of money, when they were getting all of those articles saying “Bam! Sock! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore.”
I think that some of the uneasiness that I felt around the upper echelons of DC and Marvel back then was probably caused by the fact that the attention that the comics boom of the mid-eighties brought to those companies was a bit of a two-edged sword, because all of a sudden there was the possibility of creators outgrowing the actual comic industry and having somewhere else to go, which has not really existed before.
There were great creators in the past but they felt trapped, in some senses quite rightly, because none of them were very well know outside the relatively tiny field of comics, but that’s changed, it’s different now, and there are certain creators around who actually don’t need the comic industry as it stands.
P: I think it needs them more than they need it.
AM: Which makes their behaviour ever more perverse, because they have alienated everybody who could have possibly saved them…
P: And yourself. If you’d been treated well you would presumably still be working for them, or for someone…
AM: Of course. If they hadn’t tried to steal pocket change from us at the beginning, ‘cause that was when it was, that was the thing that started to queer the pitch, was when we realised that they were trying to pretend that Watchmen merchandise was self-financing promotional material, and me and Dave, not being completely stupid, said, “Yeah, but if you make profits from this self-promoting, self-financing promotional material, then it’s merchandise, isn’t it? And we have to get some of that, don’t we?”
And it was, again, it was a few thousand dollars. If they had not tried to pick our pockets then we would have continued – we were enjoying doing the work – who knows what the comic industry might be like now, but I suspect that it would be a lot better place than the place that it has become. From everything that I hear from the few contacts that I still have in the industry it seems like DC and, well – at least DC – are trying harder than ever to crack down upon the talent. Everybody has to have an exclusive contract, they are free to actually alter your work on computer without consulting you, and they do this if they feel that it’s justified.
It was starting to look promising at some point in the eighties. There were a lot of those things that they were starting to tentatively introduce, I think they’ve rolled them back. They don’t think that the liberal experiment of the eighties worked. I think that they thought it brought them more trouble than it solved.
P: I see. OK, the next thing you have coming out is League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, volume three of the League?
AM: The first part should be out later this year.
(artwork for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, borrowed from the Top Shelf site and (C) Kevin O’Neill and Alan Moore)
P: Should it? OK, good.
AM: Century – that’s the overall title of volume three – is going to be in three books. Now we figured that we wanted to do three seventy-two page issues rather than, say, six twenty-four page comics, because we wanted to be able to tell a complete story in each issue, and they do build up into a narrative arc that spans the century of the title, but they’re each complete and satisfying in themselves. They’re set in three different time periods, so there won’t be a long nail-biting wait because, quite frankly, Kevin [O’Neill]’s going to take as long as Kevin’s going to take, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When people see the work that he’s doing – the Black Dossier itself was absolutely marvellous, he’s excelling himself, and it’s a very different feel to the other League books. For one thing we’re liberated from working for a mainstream comic company, and that has made some difference. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, it was just that working for Top Shelf is a much more pleasant and inviting experience and so we felt that, at least in this first issue, there’s not so much action as there was in the first couple of volumes and in the Black Dossier. It’s as if we feel freed from the conventions of boys’ adventure comics, and so it’s a lot more atmospheric, it builds to a tremendously bloody climax, it’s a slow build. We’re thrilled with it. It’s got some songs in it, it’s a musical.
(detail from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: the Black Dossier, by Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill)
P: I’m looking forward to seeing it.
AM: That’s coming along well, then I’ve got the second one written which Kevin can start as soon as he’s finished this first one, and then I’m going to be probably starting writing the third one, which is set in the present day. That might be… that’ll probably be 2009. So…
P: So we should see the lot of them maybe by the end of 2009?
AM: It’s possible. It’s possible, that sounds about feasible though I wouldn’t want to promise anything, and it would depend upon how long it takes Kevin to draw them because there’s not many people who actually work in the way that Kevin does anymore. It’s very seldom that you’re going to see just that amount of art – it’s just like with Melinda on Lost Girls.
These are handmade things and Kevin doesn’t work on a computer. There are actually pages of Kevin O’Neill original art are around, just like there are pages of Melinda Gebbie art around.
P: Earlier on I was watching the extras from The Mindscape of Alan Moore, and there’s the interview with Kevin and he has these huge pages of black and white, beautiful artwork from the earlier volumes of League. They’re just absolutely gorgeous!
AM: It is, absolutely. Everybody works in the way that they want to, but, there hasn’t been a page of Brian Bolland artwork in the past twenty years.
P: Speaking of Brian Bolland, did you see he redid the colouring on Killing Joke?
AM: I didn’t because I had told DC never to send me anything again that wasn’t money, and I didn’t even know that there’d been a new version of The Killing Joke, and, after the way that I was treated, and continue to a certain extent to be treated…
P: I was just wondering if, I think he’d always said he was unhappy with the colouring work on it and he’d completely redone it. DC are still milking your back catalogue, and they were bringing out a hardback version…
AM: They just don’t send me them any more, and that’s fine by me. To a certain degree I’ve detached myself from all that stuff. I would be quite happy if I never heard the names of those books ever again.
P: I’m very sorry for bringing it up.
AM: I’m not saying anything about you, its because obviously I did write them, it’s just that they’re all owned by DC Comics, and DC stole them from me, much the same as they stole everything else that they own, so all of these toys with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Killing Joke commemorative, which I’d only seen when I go into a shop; if they’d asked me I wouldn’t have had my name on those.
I’m quite happy with the work that I actually own, which means that ninety per cent of my work I have effectively disowned, which of course was painful, but it’s a small price to pay if it means that I have to have nothing to do with those people ever again. I think I might have signed a couple of the books when I down at the local Waterstone’s earlier on, but I didn’t even look at them then, I was doing a favour for the manager.
P: That’s fair enough, it was good of you to do so. I’ll tell you what I am looking forward to seeing is the Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic.
AM: That’s proceeding apace. Me and Steve [Moore] are writing it all and it’s turning into quite a wonderful thing, There’s so many different sections that are scattered through it. We have been working upon – one of the strands is this Old Moore’s Lives of the Great Enchanters where I think it’s fifty-two full pages that are laid out a bit like the old Ripley’s Believe it or Not, where you’ve got five panels with captions, and we’re starting out with the Dancing Sorcerer from the Trois Freres cave in France, the picture of the guy with antlers prancing around – it’s the first representation of a magician.
(cover art for the Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic by Alan Moore and Steve Moore)
P: Yes, I know the one you mean.
AM: Then we move up through the Persian Magi and Zarathustra, because, after the Stone Age shamanic period, that is the first record of actual magic, and then we move up through real, fictitious, and semi-real figures like King Solomon, Circe, Medea, until we get to Apollonius of Tyana. We’ve got Merlin in there –he never existed, but that’s not really important. He was the first Christian-approved magician. Because prior to that you’d got Simon Magus, who was actually a conflation of two figures. There was Simon the Magician, who was a travelling magician, and there was Simon the head of the Gnostics, which was of course the largest rival to Christianity, so by squeezing them both into one figure, and making this tale of the vain magician who has a duel with Saint Peter in Rome and flies through the air but is brought down by the power of God – it was all a propaganda story. It made Simon the first black magician, and then later the story of Merlin – he’s supposed to be the son of the Devil, he did help out King Arthur with all that Holy Grail business, so it’s alright – he’s the magician it’s alright for Christians to like, so he’s the first white magician.
And then we move on to ones that almost certainly existed, like Roger Bacon and people like that, and we carry on right up to the present day, and the modern magi, such as they are. And there are pages of theoretical essays upon what magic is and how it works. There’re practical articles on how to actually do the different things that magic can do. There’s this bestiary of demons and gods and other things that you might be lucky or unfortunate enough to bump into.
I think it’s fairly rational, and it’s going to be very beautiful. We’ve got all these lovely artists, Melinda’s doing a pop-up temple, right, for the modern magus on the move, and Kevin’s doing this seven or eight-page life of Alexander, which will be done in a Radio Fun style of thing, which will detail the life of Alexander of Abonuteichos who was the creator of Glycon, my patron deity.
P: I’m familiar with Glycon, yes.
AM: So there’s a Kaballah board game which we’re struggling with at the moment. It’s do-able but we’re just got to work out some layout problems. There’s the Tarot deck that I shall be commencing with José Villarubia…
P: Is that a separate Tarot deck, or is it just going to be…
AM: It’ll be a Tarot deck that will be included in the Bumper Book with cut-out cards, but we probably will be bringing it out in a separate deck as well for people who don’t want to cut up the Bumper Book.
P: That’s a very good idea!
AM: So, we have a lot of this stuff, it’s still in the planning stages. I think that me and Steve have written about a quarter of the book so far, but Steve’s got a lot of pressure on at the moment and we are having to work more or less around what is possible for him, but that’s coming on nicely.
P: That’s something I’m really looking forward to it.
AM: We just wanted to get rid of a lot of the pretentious, shadowy, gothy atmosphere which people seem to try to contrive to cloak magic in. In our experience, we find magic to be something which is profound, human, beautiful, occasionally very, very funny, and we want to do a book that reflects that, which has got all of the excitement and all of the pulp fiction side of it, that has got all the rest of magic as well. Neither me nor Steve are huge fans of modern, say, chaos magic, and this is our proposed antidote, something that is a lot less self-conscious and hopefully a lot closer to the spirit of what, in our opinion, genuine magic is about.
Still to come – Alan chats to Pádraig about his prose work, performance art, Melinda’s work, his daughter Leah and her husband John’s (both good friends of the blog) burgeoning creative career, psychogeography and the influence the environment has on the creative influence and the re-appearance of early, ‘lost’ Alan Moore works which have been rescued, scanned and restored to readers through the magic of the web (quite a few of which were done by Pádraig himself, I might add!) and more.
Update, the second part of Pádraig’s Alan Moore interview is now online on the blog here.