Longread: The ‘lost’ Alan Moore interview (The Telegraph Wire, 1985)

[Poking around at a Bay Area antiques fair, I came across a copy of local comic book store zine Telegraph Wire. And in it, there’s a great longform Wendi Lee interview from SDCC 1985 with Alan Moore, who was known for his Swamp Thing work & V For Vendetta at the time, and in the process of writing the seminal Watchmen!

Turns out that the Internet Archive has a copy of the zine, but nobody had cleaned up the OCR & fully republished online – so here we go! It’s a great early-ish piece on both Moore’s working style & motivation, and also his reasons for creating Watchmen.]

There’s very little need to introduce a writer like Alan Moore – already his name has become familiar to SWAMP THING fans as well as collectors of Britain’s WARRIOR, which has featured MARVELMAN (reprinted by Eclipse as MIRACLEMAN) and V FOR VENDETTA.

Alan Moore has not only proved his writing is prolific and profound, but also versatile. Since his inception of SWAMP THING, Alan has written for AMERICAN FLAGG!, MR. MONSTER and has many projects in the offing.

I was fortunate to catch Mr. Moore at the San Diego Comic-Con last August and he talked about his work on SWAMP THING as well as a very exciting project he’s working on with Dave Gibbons called WATCHMEN. Although there’s no set date, keep watching DC for more information.

This interview, as I’ve said, took place in August at the Executive Hotel in San Diego. It was transcribed by yours truly, copy-edited by yours truly with final edits by yours truly. Unfortunately, because of the distance between California and England, it was difficult to send it to Alan for a timely copy-edit. However, I’ve kept the interview almost verbatim and hope that Alan approves of the following.

Special thanks are due to John Totleben, Richard Bruning, Linda Robak and Peggy May for their time and efforts involved in the breathtaking cover illustration for this issue of THE TELEGRAPH WIRE.

– Wendi Lee

WENDI LEE: I wasn’t able to read SWAMP THING #21. I can’t get a copy.

ALAN MOORE: Me neither, incidentally. I haven’t got a copy.

WENDI: Really? Had you thought about writing for SWAMP THING before you were offered the opportunity?

ALAN: I’d read it before when Len and Berni were doing it in the early seventies. I thought it was the best book on the stands at the time. But if you’d asked me to name the DC characters at the time that I’d most like to write about, I probably wouldn’t have even thought of the Swamp Thing.

On the other hand, I find that there’s something really nice about having something thrown at you, something you haven’t thought of before..

You think, “What would I do if they gave me Superman or Batman?” If they gave me Batman, I think I’d probably have a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with him just because it’s a character you do think about in your spare moments. But just to be told, “We want you to take over the Swamp Thing forever. Have the first script in three weeks time…” or whatever, it forces you to think of a lot of things that you never would have thought about otherwise.

The really strange thing, actually, connected with Swamp Thing is that sometimes when I’m just sitting there and typing, I have a lot of very strange thoughts going through my head. Several weeks before I took on SWAMP THING, I was thinking “I wonder if I still have the facility to just take a. character that’s thrown at me – a really odd character, a really obscure character -and do something good with it. Now who’s a really obscure character?” And I thought, “The Heap.”

WENDI: The what? (That’s how obscure, folks! – ed.)

ALAN: The Heap. I was thinking, “What would I do if someone gave me The Heap?” I thought you could probably do something with his camouflage abilities, the fact that you could do nice visual things and the fact that he looks so much like the swamp. I was thinking like that and a couple of weeks later, Len phoned up and said, “Do you want to do SWAMP THING?” And the Swamp Thing is, of course, a direct descendent of The Heap. It was just really, really odd that I’d thought about it prior to the offer.

WENDI: I’ve never even heard of The Heap!

ALAN: Oh, it used to be in Airboy Comics and I think he was the first swamp creature in comics. He was a German fighter pilot who’d been shot down in the fog and – you know the way these things happen – somewhat strange chemicals and BLOOPBLOOPBLOOPBLOOP… three minutes later, up comes the creature! (Laughter)

No, it was just really odd. I didn’t realize until after a couple of weeks of writing SWAMP THING. I didn’t remember that I’d been thinking about The Heap.

Taking on the SWAMP THING was great because I had to sit down and just think what I could do with this character. I had to look at the way Len and Berni handled it, the way that Marty Pasko handled him and I had to see what I thought was right about the character as well as what I thought was wrong with the character. Then I had to build upon that.

In the first issue, I just decided to tie up all of Marty’s plot lines. I also had to kill the character in the first issue because it just seemed to be something I had to do – almost unconsciously. I just feel the need to work out characters that I take over so I can build them up from the ground level again.

WENDI: Then he becomes yours.

ALAN: That’s it! It’s a psychological thing. It’s a thing that I feel comfortable with if I can have the Swamp Thing blown away in the first issue. Then in the second issue, I can just sit back and relax. I think that’s pretty much the story.

WENDI: When I interviewed Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle for issue 21, they talked about ending the BLACKHAWK series by putting everything back the way it had been when they took it over. They killed off characters that they had created and took everything they put into BLACKHAWK out.

ALAN: I don’t know what will happen when I leave SWAMP THING – which, obviously, I will do one day. That’s sort of interesting to think about.

WENDI: Do you feel stifled at all by the fact that Swamp Thing must be in or near a swamp? It limits him because he can’t wander into a city… or can he?

ALAN: Actually, when I started doing the SWAMP THING, one of the things I thought of was, “Well, he’s a thing and he lives in a swamp.” And I really saw the swamp as being as important a character in the story as Swamp Thing himself.

During Marty’s tenure on the book, certainly, and during a lot of Len’s issues, there was a feeling that the swamp was restricting and that they wanted to have Swamp Thing travelling around the world, travelling across Europe. One of the main problems with this concept was that you have the “boxcar syndrome”: if you want to get Swamp Thing from one side of America to the other, or to another country, he has to stow away in boxcars or in the trunk of a car or in the steerage of a ship. It doesn’t look right. It isn’t the way Swamp Thing should travel. Of course, we’ve rectified this recently…

WENDI: And brilliantly, I might add!

ALAN: I was quite pleased and happy. It was mainly just a way to get over a problem in the writing because I wanted Swamp Thing to travel.

WENDI: And it’s so simple that you don’t have to explain any further than the first issue!

ALAN: That’s it! He grows up. I do think that was pretty elegant, if I do say so myself.

I mean, for the first twenty-six issues, I was quite happy to have him stay in the swamp and do stories that revolve around the swamp. Steve and John have got a fair feel for the texture of the place.

I was reading up about it. I read about Spanish moss and the water hyacinths and the various insects to try and get a feeling for what the place must be like. The texture of the swamp is really important to the story. I wanted to have him in the swamp for 14 or 15 issues before I took him off anywhere else. Now we have him travelling around America. But he sort of goes back to the swamp every couple of issues so that we can keep that as an important factor.

WENDI: There seems to be a sort of estrangement from Abby. She seems to be acting the way anyone would act when a loved one travels a lot.

ALAN: Well, obviously, she’s going to be feeling pretty weird because she does love him but he’s not human. He loves her but I figured they would have problems.

But I’m far too sentimental for the job. I really don’t like giving my characters problems. I don’t want to pile agony upon agony. As far as I’m concerned, the Swamp Thing and Abby are going to be in love forever.

They might have the occasional cross word or the occasional distance between them, but no trauma. They’re going to be friends all the way through.

WENDI: Trauma can become tedious in story after story.

ALAN: It’s unnecessary a lot of the time: “Well, what can we do to this character just to make it interesting?” There’s no real reason in terms of the actual character himself, why these things happen. It seems to be something artificial that the writer will dump upon the character in order to generate some interest in the story. The way I see the Swamp Thing and Abby is that they’re very much in love. There’s no reason why they should have a terrible time and break up just to give everyone some sort of vicarious soap opera thrill. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s sort of refreshing to write about a relationship that works. (Laughter)

WENDI: Tell me a little bit about WATCHMEN.

ALAN: That’s something I’m doing for DC. Like I said, I took over SWAMP THING on the run. And I had to get the first script in to DC within three weeks. This meant that the direction of the story that I was bound to for the next couple of years had to be thought out in those next three or four weeks. So there were probably areas of sloppiness.

Also, it was the first time I’d been exposed to a twenty-three page format. That really does make a difference. I really only just mastered the eight-page format in Britain. The length of stories determines the sort of stories that you do. For example, if you’ve got a very long story, the timing can be different.

You can afford to spend a page dealing with a couple of seconds [characters]. If you’ve got an eight page story, you don’t have that luxury.

In England, I’ve been working with six and eight-page scripts and just sort of trying to find my way around them. Then, all of a sudden, I’ve got the twenty-three page format to work with. After twenty-four issues of SWAMP THING, I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’ve done some experimenting, I’ve messed around and I’ve seen what can be done. It’s not all been successful, but I think I’ve learned quite a bit.

WATCHMEN is my first project to actually use what I’ve learned. WATCHMEN is very, very structured. It’s twelve issues long.

I know exactly what the image in the last panel is going to be. I can see it as a whole from beginning to end. I’m really pleased with the way it’s working.

I’ve been working closely with Dave Gibbons on the project. Dave’s putting so much into it. It’s not just the writing; we’re coming together on a level of pure story-telling. I mean, the way Dave’s drawing things affects the way I’m writing it. The way he’s laying out pages is affecting the way I’m writing it.

It’s a really amazing experience. I’m enjoying it immensely. Most of my stuff, I have a lot of reservations about. Three issues, maybe four issues of SWAMP THING I’d say are really good. But most of them, of course, I don’t like personally.

I mean. I do write an awful lot of rubbish.. The AMERICAN FLAGG! stories were rubbish. But WATCHMEN, I think, is the best thing I’ve ever done. I think it’s really, really good.

WENDI : Can you give me an idea of what it’s about?

ALAN: Sure, We’re trying to step back from the superhero a little bit; we want to take a fresh look at the idea of being a superhero. Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel brought out SUPERMAN in 1939. There were no other superheroes and I think that for us today, it’s very difficult to imagine what the impact of that character was; since Superman in comics, the sky is full of flying men. It’s not quite the same. The whole superhero idea has grown up with cliches around it and that has smothered it in a way. You can no longer see the woods for the trees.

What me and Dave have tried to do with WATCHMEN is to somehow get back to that point where we stepped away from the conventional idea of superheroes. I wanted to do something that used the superhero in a very, very different way to the way it’s been used before: psychologically.

One of the main things is to see what effect a superhero would have upon the world. In the DC and Marvel universes, they don’t have any effect. They’re all extraordinary beings, but the world they live in is very much the same as ours.

In WATCHMEN, we try to think it through politically and socially. We’ve got a character called Mr. Manhattan who is the only actual superhero in the book.

He’s the only actual one with powers. He emerges about 1965 and from that point on, the world is different forever. Since he’s strongly aligned to the American military, obviously, he’s like a step beyond the neutron bomb. Instantly, the balance of world power changes.

I think if the American government had found a superhero, they would have been a little bit more adventuresome in their foreign policy whereas the Russians would most certainly have been a little more timid.

In the world we’re dealing with, America won the Vietnamese war. The Russians have not invaded Afghanistan. Basically, they’re in the Kremlin under the table with their fingers in their ears. They’re terrified and the only option that they have left is mutually assured destruction. Their backs are against the wall.

You’ve reached a point where the doomsday clock is seconds away from midnight. It’s closer to disaster than our own world is. That is one of the main themes of the book: it’s this paranoid, frightening world that’s just getting closer and closer to Armageddon.

And it’s all because of this one superhero.

There are other costumed heroes in the book, but most of them are retired because I don’t think that the American legal system, or any legal system, would support superheroes. It would just cause so many problems. If you allow one guy in a mask to go around beating people up, anyone in a mask can beat people up. It just wouldn’t work. So most of the superheroes have been forced into retirement – apart from those who are valuable to the military, which includes Dr. Manhattan. That is where it all begins.

There’s a lot of different threads in it. One of the things that ties the entire story together is a murder mystery that runs all the way through the plot.

I can’t tell you an awful lot without giving away the plot.

We’ve got some interesting characters. There’s Rorschach who’s a really psychotic vigilante. Whereas in most comic books the psychopath will get angry, a real psychopath doesn’t get angry. A psychopath will break your arm and smile… or never react at all.

WENDI: That’s frightening!

ALAN: Yeah. I’ve met a couple of psychopaths. They never growl, they never snarl, they never do anything outrageous.

WENDI: They’re perfectly pleasant people.

ALAN: Absolutely placid. It’s abnormal emotional reactions. That’s what Rorschach is all about. There’s another character called the Comedian who’s like a one-man CIA Dirty Tricks Division. He’s one of the government agents who has been allowed to carry on.

There’s a female superhero who basically only took on the job because her mother wanted her to and there’s a very self-pitying retired superhero who just mainly sits in his chair and thinks about the old days.

And the world around them looks totally different. Technology’s changed: there are no gas guzzlers anymore. There are just these very big, nice-looking electric cars. And the streets look totally different because there are a lot of battery points where the taxis can go and charge themselves up. We’re not going to explain all this, but Dave’s putting it all in the background so that we can have a complete three-dimensional world where everything makes sense.

There’s no McDonald’s. Instead there’s a chain of Indian fast food restaurants called Gunga-Diners just because of the change in political situation.

At some point in the last 15 years, America’s had an influx of Indian immigrants, presumably refugees fleeing from one of the political hot spots in the world. That’s not important to the story, but we try to realize the world and give it a texture and a feeling. So from the very first panels, you’re there in the streets and you think, “That car is wrong. Why are people’s lapels different? And the cut of their trousers is different. What are those things that they’re smoking? Those aren’t cigarettes.”

And we don’t explain all this. In fact, there’s even a point where Dave’s shown a Heinz bean can – and it’s got 58 varieties instead of 57. It’s just little bits like that running through the story. We just want to dump people into this alien environment where everything is slightly askew, everything is slightly different.

Dave’s doing it on a 9-panel page grid. I’m used to working on a 6-panel grid. So when you’ve got nine panels on a page, the amount of information is suddenly different on a page. And I’m finding that my scripts for WATCHMEN, my normal scripts are pretty thick and heavy, but the scripts for WATHCMEN are a couple of inches thick, maybe an inch and a half. I mean when it lands on Dave’s doorstep in the morning, I don’t know what he thinks!

WENDI: When is WATCHMEN coming out?

ALAN: It’s going to be coming out sometime next summer. We want six issues in-house before we start so that we can avoid the CAMELOT situation. The way this story is structured, if it doesn’t come out every month, it’ll destroy the whole rhythm of it. It’s got to be bang-bang-bang-bang-bang so when people read the first issue, they’re stuck on a train to Hell and they don’t get off till issue 12! (laughter)

WENDI: I heard that you turned in a forty-page script for MR. MONSTER.

ALAN: It’s a six to eight page story. The script was probably around forty or fifty pages. I put a lot of detail into my stories.

WENDI: Mike Gilbert was blown away by that!

ALAN: It’s just the way I work when I’m writing. My basic theory is that I’ve got a single world that I’m writing about in three dimensions. I want to get that over to the artist, but I don’t want to imprison the artist. Especially since it’s quite likely that he’s got a better visual imagination than I have. I try to give them as much detail as they possibly need, but also explain in the script that if there’s a panel that they want to change or if they think they have a better idea, they should follow it up. The script’s not, engraved in stone. I want to give them maximum freedom and, with the amount of detail, maximum support as well.

WATCHMEN, in particular, has been really, really thick, like I’ve said. I’m capable of spending two or three typed pages just on one panel, especially if I’m talking about the lighting, and the camera angles, and the positioning of the figures, the atmosphere, the expressions on their faces… when you try to describe reality, there’s quite a lot to talk about.

But I think that in the finished product, you get that greater sense of reality, of consequence, of things being solid and real without fuzzy edges.

WENDI: Are there any indications of scripts to come?

ALAN: It’s a bit premature, but at the moment, we’re trying to set up negotiations for a crossover book between Eclipse and DC with MR. MONSTER and SWAMP THING. It’ll be a lot of fun. Paul Levitz and Dick Giordano have no objections to it and when it comes out, I think it should be quite funny.

WENDI: Gee, I think we’ll all be looking forward to it! Can you tell me how you can write about superheroes if you’ve never been in their place?

ALAN: You mean, how can I write about flying when I can’t fly? Well, the way I see it, superheroes are just bits of the human personality, bits of the human psyche written large. If I write about a really weak, worthless, snivelling, grubby, despicable character, there are areas in my personality that are weak, pathetic, snivelling and grubby. I believe there are areas in everybody’s personality that are like that. You just don’t care to look for them very often.

If I’m writing a really horrible, appalling character, I’ll look at the areas within myself and drag them out into the light. It’s great! It gives you a handle on these low, despicable characters to use as a basis for your stories. It’s the areas of mobility that you’ve got inside yourself.

A lot of people are convinced of their own worthlessness and so they tend not to admit to the areas inside them where they are noble, and big, and strong. Those areas are in people and if you can bring them out, write them large: then you can come up with almost anything.

I believe that each human being has got the potential of every other imaginable human being inside themselves. If you can just plug into that, you can just pick out one piece of the jigsaw, expand that, and turn it into a character.

I really enjoy writing about Swamp Thing because he’s so nice. He’s so solid, a lot calmer and more solid than I am. I’m sort of projecting those elements in myself. It’s a very therapeutic experience. One day you can be a woman without the problem of dressing up in clothes and getting arrested and sort of causing a public scandal! (Laughter) I mean, you can be a transvestite in the privacy of your own living room just by putting yourself into a woman’s mind… and that can be a very powerful experience!

I suppose that all men have got feminine elements inside them and all women have masculine elements inside them. You can write about people of different races or species; you can be anybody in the privacy of your own head and just pour it out onto a typewriter.

Sometimes when I’m writing a character like Arcane, I feel very “black”. I have to get to the point where I could quite easily wipe out a whole city and not blink. You have to feel that.

You know, writing Etrigan was an incredible experience. Getting into the character was incredibly difficult – he’s so heavy. His thoughts are so dense and sort of massive and ugly. I had to think of how his body would feel. He’s sort of short and stocky, but I feel that his body probably weighs a couple of tons. I figure that his body is just so dense that he crouches. So I was just standing in front of the mirror hunching my body up and walking around, trying to feel the power of it. I was thinking, “Well, he’s got these teeth in the front and he’s got this cleft lip… so how’s he going to talk? It would deform his speech.”

I tried to talk around my teeth like this…

(He demonstrates) and eventually, the voice I got was an electronically-distorted Charles Laughton as Captain Bly in Mutiny On The Bounty. That sounded just right for Etrigan – sort of heavier and more guttural with a slight speech impediment.

Once I’ve gotten the speech and the feel of the body, it’s very easy to write the dialogue. I
start to feel like I’m inside the character. It’s a very psychotic way of working. I wouldn’t advise anyone to take it up, but it’s very effective.

(Laughter)

It enables you to do more powerful writing because you’re right there inside the character. That was one of the troubles with the AMERICAN FLAGG! series. Those characters are Howard’s and he does them excellently, but I found that I couldn’t get inside them. And consequently, it’s a story about surface; there’s no emotional resonance. I’d rather get right into something.

WENDI: It’s hard to get into Raul.

ALAN: Yes, it is. I could write about a cat, but it would have to be my vision of a cat, not Howard’s. And Howard has such a clear vision that I was frightened about contradictinq it.

When I was writing Rorschach from WATCHMEN, I found that really disturbing because everything he says is horrible. He has a horrible vision of the world. The first line of WATCHMEN is a caption from Rorschach’s journal: “Dead dog in alley this morning. Tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me: I have seen its true face.” And that’s just the first caption. I know exactly how he feels when he walks along – unpleasant and horrible.

WENDI: He sees all the terrible things in life.

ALAN: That’s all he sees – just murder and death and horror. So you have to live in that world as well. The only good thing is that you’re there on holiday for a day. You don’t have to live there forever.

WENDI: Are you sayipg that you must suffer for your art?

ALAN: I’m not saying “Genius is pain” or “Artists suffer”, but to be authentic, you’ve got to put yourself through the wringer a little bit. There’s got to be some emotional effort.

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