Q&A: 'Watchmen' creator Alan Moore
''Watchmen,'' his upcoming projects, ''South Park,'' shaving his beard -- the relatively reclusive comics author talks about all that and more in a wide-ranging chat
About two years ago, Warner Bros. announced that 300 director Zack Snyder would be adapting that gold standard of comics, Watchmen, into a feature film. The response was nothing short of orgiastic — from just about everyone except Watchmen‘s own scribe, Alan Moore, who remains ambivalent about all the hoopla. The 54-year-old writer and co-creator of such seminal and erudite works as From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (both of which were adapted into eagerly anticipated movies that failed to match the quality of Moore’s source material) has a tangled history with the entertainment business. Even in a time when comics creators are more influential than ever (heck, The Spirit producers even gave comics great Frank Miller the helm), Moore simply wants to be left alone.
It’s no surprise that Moore has been accused of being comics’ Orson Welles — exceedingly talented, if profoundly prickly — and perhaps in certain incidents he’s earned that description. But when EW phoned him at his home in Northampton, England, we encountered a very different creature, one not unlike (if we can be so bold) his DC Comics character from 1983, Swamp Thing. Like the gentle giant who fought abominable invaders to save his wetland digs, the soft-spoken, somewhat reclusive Moore (himself an imposing figure, what with his curtain of hair and thicket of beard) battles Hollywood producers and mainstream comics publishers — fiscally minded forces he perceives as sullying his creative properties. In this wide-ranging conversation, Moore talks in depth about those struggles, as well as about the new Watchmen movie, his upcoming League of Extraordinary Gentlemen installment, his next novel, magic, his favorite TV shows, singing along to South Park, and whether he’ll ever shave his beard.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Don’t you have the slightest curiosity about what Watchmen director Zack Snyder is doing with your work?
ALAN MOORE: I would rather not know.
He’s supposed to be a very nice guy.
He may very well be, but the thing is that he’s also the person who made 300. I’ve not seen any recent comic book films, but I didn’t particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase [those problems] rather than reduce them: [that] it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid. I know that that’s not what people going in to see a film like 300 are thinking about but…I wasn’t impressed with that…. I talked to [director] Terry Gilliam in the ’80s, and he asked me how I would make Watchmen into a film. I said, ”Well actually, Terry, if anybody asked me, I would have said, ‘I wouldn’t.”’ And I think that Terry [who aborted his attempted adaptation of the book] eventually came to agree with me. There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.
Do you think that any good can come of comics movies?
I increasingly fear that nothing good can come of almost any adaptation, and obviously that’s sweeping. There are a couple of adaptations that are perhaps as good or better than the original work. But the vast majority of them are pointless.
NEXT PAGE: Moore explains how toiling for the Sex Pistols’ manager was better than working in Hollywood
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You haven’t enjoyed any comics adaptations? Even the indie films?
ALAN MOORE: There are none that leap to mind. I hear that the American Splendor film was pretty good. I didn’t go and see the film; I waited until Harvey [Pekar] and [his wife] Joyce came over to our house — so I got the live talk. We got to show them all around town — that was, for me, better than the film.
Has Warner Bros. tried to contact you about Watchmen?
No, they’ve all been told not to. They get the message…. I don’t want anyone who works for DC comic books to contact me ever again, or I’ll change my number…. And I only started to get upset when I found out they [DC Comics] were trying to rob me of a couple thousand pounds. It was over the Watchmen merchandising back in the ’80s, and they kind of eventually said, Oh, yeah, I suppose you do deserve this money. But by that time the damage was done. The only reason I ended up working for them again, during the ABC period from ’99-’04, [was because] I had already signed the contracts. [Editor’s note: DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz responds: ”We’ve had our disagreements with Alan over the years, but we remain great fans of his talent and would be happy to work with him in the future if he’s ever inclined.”]
Is there anything anyone could offer you — possibly outside DC and Warner Bros. — that could interest you in Hollywood?
There’s nothing that could get me interested in Hollywood again. And, increasingly, there’s nothing that could get me interested in the American comics industry again. I’m going to be doing more comics bits in the future, but that will most certainly be with [his new publisher] Top Shelf or [an indie] company like Top Shelf. Hollywood and American comics, I have given them a chance, and I think 20 years is long enough. If they were going to deliver, they would have done it by now.
You, yourself, wrote a movie script in the ’80s, Fashion Beast.
I did, which was mercifully never itself brought to the screen. I was doing it to see if I could write a screenplay, and to hang out with Malcolm McLaren [the Sex Pistols impresario, who commissioned it]. Which is always a fun prospect.
What is it like when Alan Moore and Malcolm McLaren hang out?
It’s kind of about as amusing and cynical as you might expect.
He’s considered by some to be the great evil music Svengali.
I’m not saying that other people may not have completely different relationships with Malcolm — and, indeed, from reading most of the Sex Pistols biographies, I assume that that’s probably the case. But speaking only of my relationship with him: He was an awful lot of fun, he seemed full of ideas, and I got paid for a film which never came out, so I was very happy with the arrangement! But the thing is, Malcolm was also coming up with original ideas for these movies, which is something else that attracted me to him…. I see a kind of degeneration, if you like, in terms of the imagination that those pioneers back in the 19th century were gifted with, and kind of recycled ideas that we tend to get served up today…. So often any film that comes out is going to be a sequel or a remake of a film that’s previously existed — and I’ve said this before, that we will see Johnny Depp playing Cap’n Crunch. It will eventually get down to breakfast cereal mascots!
NEXT PAGE: Moore spills details on the latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen installment and his novel, Jerusalem
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Whereas The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. III): Century [the third installment of Moore’s Victorian-sleuthing comic, due out in April 2009] certainly stokes the imagination. Why make it span three different eras — 1910, 1968, and the present?
ALAN MOORE: [Artist] Kevin O’Neill and I realized we had two or three powerful stories. It struck us that we might be able to link them together and make a three-part narrative, so that each would stand on it’s own and thus relieve readers from any kind of painful cliffhanger between issues. And yet the three stories would link up into an overarching narrative involving the occult.
How do these three chapters split up?
The first book surrounds the coronation of King George, which was also the time The Threepenny Opera was set, a comet was passing overhead, and there was a general feeling of dread in the air. We’re also focusing on the occult fictions written around the time…[like] Aleister Crowley’s  book, Moonchild, where the protagonists are attempting to create a magically produced child that is going to usher in a new era. [Protagonist] Mina and her associates are trying to stop this from happening. The second book [revolves around] that sort of peculiar 1960s melding of pop-star psychedelic lifestyles, fashionable interest in occultism, and to some degree, at least in London, crime. We’ve got it all centered around a big rock concert at Hyde Park. Running all the way through this is the continuing threat of the production of a magical child who, by this time, we are fairly certain, is the Antichrist. That second book ends very badly. And they’re not having a lot of luck. The third part is set in 2008 when, basically, the League is in pieces — barely exists anymore — and this turns out to be the time at which the Antichrist project finally pays off, and this magical child finally manifests in quite a terrifying form.
You’ve moved publishers, from DC Comics to Top Shelf. Do you think that’s going to affect your work?
I think it’s already affecting it. Both me and Kevin have noticed that this third volume is very different from the first two [published by DC Comics]. It’s almost as if, while we were working within the confines of mainstream comics, we were perhaps unconsciously following the basic formulae of mainstream comics. There’s sort of an overall ethos in comics, in boys’ adventure fiction, that you must keep the action moving, which is not really the standards of serious drama or literature. So for this third volume of League, we’re pacing it differently. It’s got a lot more depth and resonance, a lot more drama for the money. And I think that the payoff of this first volume is that it will be frightening enough to make the reader forget the slower pace of its opening pages.
Tell me about your upcoming novel, Jerusalem.
This is probably taking up most of my time at the moment. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, and it’ll probably take me another couple of years. I’ve just passed the two-thirds mark; I did a word count and it was 400,000 words, which means that the end result is gonna be somewhere between half and three-fourths of a million!
NEXT PAGE: The program that Moore says is, ”possibly the most stunning piece of television, full-stop.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is it about?
ALAN MOORE: My first novel [Voice of the Fire, released in the U.S. in 2004] was based upon Northamptonshire [where he grew up], over the course of some 6,000 years. I thought that with this one I would focus in upon this relatively tiny section of Northamptonshire called the Boroughs. So I started to connect different things. I remembered an incident during my childhood when my younger brother, Mike, had choked at the age of 3 or 4, on a cough sweet…and he stopped breathing. Because it was a fairly rundown neighborhood — there wasn’t a telephone anywhere and nobody owned a car — a man who lived next door to us who had a vegetable delivery service drove my brother and mother to the hospital. It would have taken about 10 minutes, even at a generous estimate; apparently after two-and-a-half minutes I think it’s brain death. However, he was back with us by the end of the week. I’ve been having some thoughts myself, about life and death, where we go when we die.
Is death a fearful thing to you?
Not at all. Hopefully, if I do this book well enough, it will perhaps take some of the anxiety off of other people’s shoulders…. I started to formulate the theory, the idea [of] transience: that time is passing, that life is going away somewhere, that this is an illusion, albeit a persistent one. And I think I can explain that pretty well somewhere in the course of this 2,000-page leviathan.
Is there is an afterlife?
Well, we may not need one. That, just conceivably, we might get this life forever — you’ll have to read the book to get the whole thing, but I tend to think that it’s a pretty watertight theory: That you don’t get reincarnated as somebody else, but that you get reincarnated as yourself, over and over again. You have the same thoughts, and you never know you’ve done this [before], except for those little moments of déjà vu.
Do you ever relax and just watch television?
Selectively, mostly on DVD. The absolute pinnacle of anything I’ve seen recently has got to be The Wire. It’s the most stunning piece of television that has ever come out of America, possibly the most stunning piece of television full-stop.
That’s a great example of storytelling that takes its time.
Absolutely, that is grown-up television! It’s novelistic. You get to find out about all these tiny different aspects of Baltimore, to build up a huge picture of the city with all of its intricacies — from the wharf side, to the kids in the projects, to the power structure with the boardrooms and police department and governor’s office. And it’s got some great writers: It’s got George Pelecanos and David Simon. And so many wonderful characters, Bubbles, Omar. So yeah, everything else looks pretty lame next to The Wire.
What did you think of the ending?
We’ve not seen the final season yet. I’m quite excited — don’t tell me anything about it!
With something like The Wire, do you ever think, I might not mind writing for TV?
That would be a possibility — but there again, I know how hard I have to fight. Apparently, HBO is being absolute princes with regards to The Wire. It’s never had huge audiences, but they’ve kept funding it. They realized that this is a timeless, prestige program. This is one of the reasons why I’ve withdrawn from the comics industry: I do not want to deal with the people in these various industries anymore. But if that could somehow magically be arranged, if I could think of a good enough story, and if it had a chance of being the same caliber as The Wire — then yes, I would perhaps think about it. I do also tend to keep up on comedy programs.
NEXT PAGE: A South Park sing-a-long!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Which comedies do you like watching?
ALAN MOORE: Well, over here, at the moment, we’ve had some very good ones. There’s The Mighty Boosh, which is [Laughs] idiotically wonderful, childish, surreal, fantasy. There’s also a show called Snuffbox, and it’s one of the darkest, funniest comedies I’ve seen in ages. And I’m a very big fan of South Park.
Have you seen the ”Trapped in the Closet” episode?
[Sings] ”I’m trapped in the closet!” Yeah, that was terrific. I thought the way that South Park handled that bit with the Scientologists was wonderful. I was also quite heartened the other day when watching the news to see that there were demonstrations outside the Scientology headquarters over here, and that they suddenly flashed to a clip showing all these demonstrators wearing V for Vendetta [Guy Fawkes] masks. That pleased me. That gave me a warm little glow.
Are you still practicing magic?
Well, yes, practice makes perfect.
How did you first get into it?
I was turning 40 and thinking, Oh dear, I’m probably going to have one of those midlife crisis things which always just bore the hell out of everybody. So it would probably be better if, rather than just having a midlife crisis, I just went completely screaming mad and declared myself to be a magician. That would, at least, be more colorful. So, I announced, on the night of my 40th birthday party — probably after more beers than I should have had — that, ”from this point on, I’m going to become a magician.” And then the next morning you have to think, Oh, what have I said now? Are we going to have to go through with this? So I had to go about finding out what a magician was and what they did.
What is the end result of practicing magic? Is it a type of spirituality?
The mystics all seem to want to go straight to the Godhead; the magicians tend to be more curious. They want to explore all of the other aspects of the universe. For me, there is very little difference between magic and art. To me, the ultimate act of magic is to create something from nothing: It’s like when the stage magician pulls the rabbit from the hat. And then you can turn that idea into a film, a book, a painting, a piece of music, something that other people can experience. That in itself is stunning. And I suppose this is one of the reasons I got into magic, because I was tired of ducking that question that people always ask writers, which is, ”Where do you get your ideas from?”
San Diego Comic-Con is approaching. Have you ever attended it?
No…well, I mean, I stopped going in the late ’80s. I just thought, I don’t really want to do this anymore, and I don’t really see why I am doing it. I did find it a bit overwhelming and creepy.
Well, you’re a god there.
And this is the last way that I want to be treated. The reason that I live in Northampton is because everyone here is kind of used to me. I mean, yeah, I do get a gratifying smattering of people coming up to me in the street and thanking me for me work, and shaking me hand and just wanting to wish me well.
Although if you shaved your beard and cut your hair — no one would recognize you!
No one would recognize me.
Would you ever do that?
No, just the laziness that has enabled my beard to get to this length is not a habit that I’m going to shake now.
But it would be your greatest act of magic: ”Where did Alan Moore go!?”
Well, I saw the possibility, of course. I’ve always got this option. So should I need to disappear, then, if you see a sort of bald guy with a really bad shaving rash going around somewhere, then that will probably be me, yeah.