Alan Moore, eccentric genius behind graphic-novel classics V for Vendetta and Watchmen, rejected big-movie riches. Now he has made a low-budget film in his beloved home town, Northampton
Alan Moore strolls through Northampton town centre carrying a walking stick that’s been sculpted to resemble a dangerous snake, and a hairbrush. The 59-year-old writer moves with a slight trip in his step, thus the cane, and keeps the brush to hand because he hasn’t visited a barber since he was a teenager. For decades Moore has maintained his tremendous mane of hair, his wizard’s beard, through bursts of aggressive combing. “That way it tends to manage itself.”
Kids at the nearby shopping centre sometimes heckle, Moore says, calling him God, or Jesus, “which I’ll take, because Jesus died at 33 and they’ve obviously mistaken me for a much younger man”. But to fans of the landmark comic books Moore has written over the years (superhero whodunnit Watchmen, chilly dystopia V for Vendetta) deification might really feel justified. Moore is one of the most revered and influential writers in the country. Also one of the most confounding – perverse and hard to fathom.
The work he did in the 1980s on Watchmen and V for Vendetta, for instance, made an entire industry shift its focus, with publishers targeting more comics not only at pocket-money-splashing kids, or teens, but at adults too. Later, as a wider audience took to his writing, Moore edged away from the mainstream, developing such an aversion to corporate America that he declined large payments for Hollywood adaptations of his work. Five blockbuster films were made of Moore’s stories anyway, but only last month did a film get a release that he actually likes and endorses – a low-budget short that Moore scripted, currently available to view for free online. As well as this screenplay, and decades of comics, Moore has written prose fiction, history, protest songs and pornography. Alone among Britain’s bestselling authors he describes himself as a practising magician.
Moore is a puzzle, and one of the more startling facts about him is that he has spent his life in Northampton, the UK’s 73rd biggest town, rich in terms of local history and deprived in most other senses. “So many of the shops are dying on their arse. The only people prospering are the plasterboard manufacturers.”
Yet he never expects to leave, even as enthusiasm for his fictions grows in the wider world. A Watchmen film was a big hit four years ago, taking about £140m at the box office. Meanwhile it was the 2005 film made of Moore’s V for Vendetta that spawned those unnerving Guy Fawkes masks, the ones habitually worn by protest groups such as Occupy. The masks are now such a potent symbol of rebellion that they were last month outlawed in the UAE, “but I don’t want to take credit,” says Moore. “It’s these protesters making their individual efforts that are doing the job.” Besides he is reluctant, ever, to let his attentions stray too far from Northampton. When in 2007 he was asked to appear in an episode of The Simpsons, a producer flew to the Midlands from Los Angeles so that Moore could record his dialogue in a ramshackle studio near to his home.
“This is a good place for me. Keeps me focused. Life’s not easy; it’s not massively difficult. There’s a gravity about Northampton that I like.”
The short film Moore scripted, premiered online last month, is called Jimmy’s End, an unsettling and richly realised story about the underworld that’s directed by fellow Northamptonian Mitch Jenkins. It was shot in a working men’s club in town, and features Moore in a brief cameo.
Why make a film now, after so many years of squirming resistance? “My main experiences in the past had been of the Hollywood variety, which was on many levels repulsive to me. Every film is a remake of a previous film, or a remake of a television series that everyone loved in the 1960s, or a remake of a television series that everyone hated in the 1960s. Or it’s a theme park ride; it will soon come to breakfast cereal mascots.
“But I’d always thought I liked the idea of a really cheap, little film. If you want to be a writer or an artist, all you need is a Biro and a Woolworths jotter; it’s a democratic medium. I love films that are made with almost no budget.”
Moore has a complicated relationship with money. “Pure voodoo,” he says now. “Only there as long as we believe in it.” Challenged, during a television interview this year, about why he would sign away the movie rights to a comic such as Watchmen if he didn’t ever want it to become a movie, Moore said he gave up the rights because he never expected any adaptations to happen; he called it making money for old rope. But then the films came out, and somewhere along the way Moore developed such a distaste for what he saw on the screen, and the revenue accrued from it, that he asked for his name to be taken off the credits; then he started turning down production money. Moore gave his share of the Watchmen fee to Dave Gibbons, the artist with whom he conceived the series.
As well as Jimmy’s End, Moore and Jenkins recently filmed a related short called Act of Faith, set within the same fictionalised Northampton. It cost £11,000, which on the set of Watchmen would have paid for… ? “Oh, the coffee. This is it: I am horrified by the budgets of these films, almost as much as I am by the films themselves.”
“I’ve developed a theory that there’s an inverse relationship between money and imagination. That if you’ve got lots of imagination then you don’t really need much money, and if you’ve got lots of money then you won’t bother with much imagination.
“You’ve got to be able to pay your bills, otherwise you’re not going to sleep at night. But beyond that, the world inside my head has always been a far richer place than the world outside it. I suppose that a lot of my art and writing are meant to bring the two together.”
In the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Charleroi, Belgium, one of Moore’s old computer keyboards sits on permanent display. This would have seemed an unlikely outcome, in 1969, when he was hauled out of an art class at Northampton School for Boys by the deputy headmaster.
His hair newly grown out, long enough to hit a first kink and to look like “a strip of guttering” above each ear, the 16-year-old was taken to the headmaster’s office to meet a detective constable from the local drugs squad. Their subsequent chat could only have been tenser if Moore had not discreetly emptied his pockets of low-grade marijuana en route. “I thought I handled myself fairly well,” he recalls. “Obviously they thought otherwise.”
Telling his parents that he’d been expelled “felt like the end of the world”. His family lived in a part of west Northampton called the Boroughs, a poor neighbourhood that was generally avoided, Moore says, by others in town. He was unusually bright. “Growing up in the Boroughs I thought I must be the cleverest boy in the world, an illusion that I was able to maintain until I got to the grammar school.” One of about 10 working-class boys enrolled there, he found himself in a minority that hadn’t been to prep school and couldn’t already decline Latin. “My position in the class plummeted.”
American comic books were “a welcome escape hatch, a doorway into unbridled imagination”. Moore started writing and drawing his own strips, inventing an early superhero called Ray Gun (secret identity: Raymond Gunn) and loaning his efforts to friends for a small fee. Profits went to Unicef, or Save the Children. He can’t remember. “I thought it would look kind of noble. How could anyone resist, a badly drawn children’s comic in aid of charity?”
After his expulsion at 16, which he attributes to “the 1960s happening, a euphoric and expansive time”, Moore thought about applying for art school but soon started pitching comic strips. Cartooning ran in the family. His paternal great-grandfather, a legendary Northampton rake called Ginger Vernon, used to trade caricatures for pints in the pub. (He was, adds Moore, a ferocious alcoholic.) Moore started writing and drawing a regular strip for the local newspaper, then another for the music magazine Sounds. By the time he’d found work on a line of British-made Doctor Who titles, Moore had given up drawing (“I couldn’t do it fast enough, or well enough”) to focus on writing.
He was by then married, and lived with his wife Phyllis and their daughter Leah on an estate on the edge of town. By the time second daughter Amber was born, they were in a run-down council house closer to the centre, and here Moore worked in the bedroom, his long body folded over a typewriter propped on a stool. “Writing V for Vendetta I knew I was doing good stuff. But it wasn’t until I was headhunted by American comics that there was a major change in my circumstances.”
Moore was asked to work on the US title Swamp Thing, which told of a superhero who was also a human vegetable. It was ideal territory, schlocky and idiosyncratic and hardly a flagship title for its publishers, meaning Moore could get away with introducing darker notes. “I didn’t realise that incest and necrophilia were still frowned on socially over here,” Moore said, deadpan, to an American interviewer in 1985, after he’d been criticised for his controversial plots.
By this point his V for Vendetta series was being published, and Moore was crafting Watchmen, an unusual fusion of genres that told of a group of retired crime fighters under threat from a serial killer. On the surface Watchmen was superhero fiction – powers, cloaks, chins – but it was set in something more like the real world, noir-like and patently intended for grownups. It was groundbreaking, still imitated to this day.
Moore went on to write the historical horror story From Hell (turned into an unsatisfying Johnny Depp film in 2001) and a raucous adventure series called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which became a cinematic flop for Sean Connery in 2003). In the 1990s he started work on Lost Girls, a pornographic comic conceived with the American artist Melinda Gebbie. By the time it was fully published in 2006, Moore had separated from his first wife and he and Gebbie were a couple. They married in 2007, wearing outfits of “iridescent blue and green” that made them look, in the words of Moore’s eldest daughter, like a pair of bluebottles.
Nothing in his varied output has ever quite eclipsed Watchmen (listed by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the modern era) but Moore, in 2012, won’t keep a copy of it in the house. He has long been at odds with its co-creator, Gibbons, about whether to allow publishers to revive the series for a line of prequels, and whether to endorse a tie-in computer game, and Moore has said the pair even bickered over Watchmen on his wedding day. Anyway a comics series called Before Watchmen has since gone on sale, and there will doubtless be more movies to come.
Moore has disavowed the lot – at a personal cost, he has guessed, of more than £1m. He hates being coerced, whatever the financial incentive, and it may well be something in the blood. His great-grandfather Ginger, the hard-drinking cartoonist, was at the turn of the 20th century offered the chance to become the director of a glass company in town, Moore claims. He was told: “You’ll make millions! The only condition is that you stay out the pub for two weeks.” The answer, inevitably, was no; and Vernon spent the rest of his life walking past the mansion of the man who took the job.
“But I’m immensely proud of that. Turning something down because it wasn’t what you wanted to do. This stuff… it’s probably in the genes.”
Imagination, says Moore, is like a muscle. “If you work on it, it gets bigger.” After four decades, though, it might be possible to have overworked it. Moore hardly knows where to put his ideas anymore.
Not content to have made Jimmy’s End and its prologue Act of Faith, he has thought up all sorts of surplus fantasies that might flavour future episodes set in the same world. He has taken the time to write a fictional radio show that could feature at some stage, and with his daughter Amber has invented a computer game that might get a mention. He’s come up with a line of energy drinks. Also a social network.
“I overreach. It could be something to do with being the cleverest boy in the world at the age of 10. But what I want to do is blur the lines between what’s real and what’s made up.”
There has been, surely, a blurring in what’s real and what’s made up about Moore himself: that he’s a recluse, that he’s a magician. You alight the train in Northampton expecting to seek out a Salinger-like sourpuss, or else to find an Aleister Crowley figure chalking pentangles on the platform. Instead you meet a man who is warm and obliging and wears a purple hoodie. Moore is patently eager to show off Northampton, and to explain what it means to him, and is unembarrassed about grooming his vast mane in front of an audience – an extraordinary production, by the way, the whole thing brought down in a canopy over his face for combing before a middle parting is found and the hair is eased apart like heavy drapes.
He chats continuously, about homeopathy and Lemsip, CSI: Miami and the burning car murderer Alfie Rouse (“a local favourite”). “I think I’m quite gregarious,” he says, approximately 100 minutes into conversation, bashful about it and pulling in his chin so that his beard folds up on to his chest. He wears a long, heavy ring on his finger that looks, at a glance, as if it might be related to the magic stuff; in fact it is his wedding band, self-designed and inset with a pair of teardrop opals.
This business of being a practising magician, which he first announced in the 1990s (about the time his beard started to grey, and he got the snake-shaped stick). Is it for real, or is he playing? “It’s a major part of how I see the world. Looking like I do, halfway to Gandalf before I’ve put a foot out the door, you’ve got to diffuse… ” And for once, Moore fails to find an eloquent end to his sentence. He tries again: “There is an element of playing. But what’s behind it is very serious.”
Pick a card, any card? No, says Moore, it’s not about tricks. To him it’s about consciousness – and quickly he gets away on a tangent about the limits of the mind, flitting through Freud, Alan Turing, Paracelsus and Twelfth Night before arriving at an explanation that makes reasonable sense. Moore sees magic as a form of meditation, an outlet for his seriously vivid imagination.
“Do I believe, for example, that by using magic I could fly? No. How would you get around gravity? Impossible. Do I believe that I might be able to project my consciousness into a very, very vivid simulation of flying? Yeah. Yes, I’ve done that. Yes, that works.”
Does it require that you take… “Sometimes you have to take drugs, yes. Sometimes you can do it with dreaming. Sometimes you can do it with a creative act. Writing is a very focused form of meditation. Just as good as sitting in a lotus position.”
When another of Moore’s old computer keyboards was put up for auction on eBay, last year, the seller hazarded that it “may contain otherworldy powers”. It went for £461, despite having a faulty Z key. Walking in Northampton, Moore explains that his old keyboards have ended up on eBay, or in that museum in Charleroi, because he has had to decommission so many of them. He currently writes on an industrial-strength keyboard made of metal, properly meant for use in foundries and conflict zones. The plastic sort used to last him a few months before melting under the constant spray of cigarette ash, or otherwise breaking from overuse.
He has been bashing away on a novel, he says, a book that like his film shorts is set in Northampton. Almost finished, it is called Jerusalem and rings in at about 600,000 words – longer than the Bible, he says, delighted if not a little concerned that having typed it all with single digits he has worn away the tips of his index fingers. As Moore strolls on he lets his imagination stroll too – thinking aloud about the crimes someone in his position might now commit without fear of detection. There could be a murder involving two stiff fingers to the victim’s temple, for example…
Moore regrets that neither his father or his mother got to read his best stuff before passing away in the 1990s. (Though his mum did once tackle Swamp Thing, “which I think was probably the second book she’d read in her life, after the novelisation of The Sound of Music“.) It’s to his parents that he credits the conviction that money is of secondary value in life. “It was my class. The only thing you could pride yourself on, in the Boroughs, was to be decent people. To stand up to bullies. That was very heavily imprinted on me as a kid, and it’s not a bad way to conduct your life.”
His daughter Leah recently had twins, and Moore is a grandfather four times over. Did that give him pause about all the cash he’s turned down? “No. I look out for my kids as much as I can do, and the grandkids don’t ever go short. But I don’t want to set them up in mansions, any more than I would have wanted Ginger Vernon to have accepted that job 100 years ago.”
You suspect that Moore, a century on, will take his place alongside Vernon in the family legend. The eccentric ancestor who refused a fortune, out of stubbornness, or from other, hazier, essentially quite decent reasons.
While walking Moore has been pointing out local landmarks: the Guildhall where he married, and a statue that marks the town’s role in the discovery of DNA, and the site of the old Woolworths where he used to buy his jotters. Now he pauses in Northampton’s ancient market square, one of the country’s oldest. The market was granted its charter by Richard I on 18 November, 1189. “And 18 November happens to be my birthday,” the writer says, with plain satisfaction. “So in many ways, je suis Northampton. Yes… I do identify with this town.”
By Tom Lamont