Northampton is one of those small towns in the heart of England, up the line from Berkhamstead and Milton Keynes, that seem ordinary until you know their history. The first Parliament was declared there and its neighbourhood was the location of crucial battles in both the Wars of the Roses and the Civil War. It is the sort of quiet extraordinary place where the flowing hair and beard of Alan Moore pass unnoticed, because he has always lived there, and they don't notice him any more.
He has changed the face of graphic novels, so that we hardly talk about comics any more, but that, luckily, does not make him a celebrity. 'It means nothing if a million people know your name; I didn't sign up for that.' One of the many themes which have permeated his work since he first started to be noticed for his issues of DC Comics 'Swamp Thing' is his distaste for the way the mass media turn sometimes quite ordinary people into celebrities, 'fuel rods for the Murdoch empire', and then spit them out as drug-addicted or merely boring, only to rediscover them years later as ironic icons. The work is what is important - if Moore's name is something that the industry uses to shift product that is because 'Watchmen', 'V for Vendetta', 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' and all the rest are outstanding, inventive pieces of work.
His house is just one of a long brick terrace - inside it is blue and starry. His bath is on a Hollywood scale - a friend who works in fibre-glass got on the wrong side of the local heavies, and Alan settled his debt and took it out in trade...It is the house of a working writer - cases of editions of his work litter the office floor; it is also the home of a working magician, decorated with ritual wands from the Golden Dawn, falcon masks and the haunting art of the occultist Austin Osman Spare. It is an appropriately strange setting for the recluse Ian Sinclair has described as 'the last sane man in England'.
'Magic and Art are the same. Which is why Magic is referred to as The Great Art. They are both technologies of Will, both about pulling rabbits out of hats and creating something where there was nothing.' Moore and the artist J.H. Williams have just published the fifth and final volume of 'Promethea' which is partly a superhero comic about a young woman coming into mystic power at the end of the second millennium and partly a course of instrution in magic and the occult. It is funny and exciting, and somehow you don't feel quite the same after reading it - it is a book that leaves you with a sense of the connectedness of things. It is a best-selling piece of commercial art; it is also as much Alan Moore's grimoire as the two CD records of his ritual performances, 'The Highbury Working' and 'Snakes and Ladders.'
'Books of magic are always written in high metaphor; they are about our relationship to consciousness and how we construe it'. Consciousness is the hole in rationalism. You cannot reproduce it in a laboratory which is why some rationalist philosophers like Dan Dennett try to deny the shared experience of knowing that there is a how to how we feel. Magic is a way of breaking the paradigm, of making sense of our lives as we live them.
Moore is distrustful of many things about magic and the occult - ' when I talk about Kabbala, it is a coherent system for organizing our understanding of things and the connections between them, not wearing a red string on your wrist or drinking expensive bottled water'. One of the most beautiful sections of 'Promethea' is a prolonged wander through the Sephirothim, the realms of reality described by the Kabbala which are cognate with the planets of non-predictive astrology and with the effects of colour on our moods. Thus, one issue is largely green and discusses that oceanic feeling of belonging and being nurtured that is associated with Venus; it is also Williams' tribute to the swirly softness of Alphonse Mucha and much Underground Sixties art.
It was also about setting himself and Williams' challenges. After the episode in which they had done the history of the world as a tarot deck, it had to be a matter of ever-escalating virtuoso explorations of different styles of comics and of occult art. The last issue, for example, in which everything we have learned about magic is recapitulated, is designed both page by page, and to fold out as two large posters of Promethea.
'One of the problems with the occult is the vested interest of most occultists in obfuscation - they sell the possibilities of magic short and lose touch with reality.' In 'Promethea', partly because it is also a high-octane story about the misunderstood Sophie Bangs whom the FBI are chasing for feat that she will destroy the world, Alan Moore is free to talk more or less clearly about what, for example, the end of the world means. As Promethea, Sophie does, in a sense, end the world; she makes everyone see things in a new light, so that nothing has changed and everything has changed. 'It was always going to be a book about Apocalypse. Then issue 17, which had as its teaser for the next issue "Panic in Manhattan, Hell on Earth, Life on Mars" appeared in mid- September 2001.'
'Promethea' is only one, though perhaps the most interesting, of the projects Moore has been doing for America's Best Comics. There is 'Tom Strong' with its deliberate evocation of a more innocent era of chunky, brilliant heroes who make peace with menaces as often as they fight them. There is 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', a piece of cynical Victoriana in which Alan Quartermain, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man join forces against Chinese warlords and Martian invaders, and the sardonic anthology series 'Terrific Tales'.
My personal favourite is 'Top Ten' and its just published prequel 'The 49ers', which are smart and humane and funny, and also a nuanced meditation on the heroic part of the concept of the superhero. They are, effectively, a version of 'The Bill' or 'Hill Street Blues' set in Neopolis, where everyone is a superhero, a robot, a vampire or a god. 'I had been thinking about why superhero team-up comics almost never work, and I think it is because you have to set your team against ever-escalating menaces. And I had been thinking about the ensemble in cop shows...'
Neopolis, even in its early days when, after WW2, the American government persuades the heroes who won the war for it to go and settle there, feels more like a modern city than Spiderman's Manhattan. It is a place where the bizarre becomes the mundane - after all, with the abilities that modern computers give us, most of us, in a sense, have superpowers now.
It is, quite possibly, one of Alan Moore's swansongs in the traditional comics industry. Gerald Jones in his 'Men of Tomorrow' (Heinemann 2005) documented the way that the creators of comics' most enduring icons - Superman and Batman - were trampled on and cheated by businessmen who had a more than passing association with the Mafia. Things may have changed, but not enough. '"Proper grown-up writers" have a moral right to their work - it says so right there on the page. The only reason I am described as the author on my books is that my name sells more copies.'
Specifically, he hates the way that many of his colleagues get excited when a wonderful comic book gets turned into a worthless movie franchise. He is in the process of severing his links with DC as a result of a press release which said that he was enthusiastic about the forthcoming film of 'V for Vendetta'. 'I have made it clear that I want nothing to do with films of my work. I don't want my name on them and I insist that the money go to other creators.' He is also worried about the way that simple stylized solutions of the kind associated with comics - 'Lex Luthor doesn't have issues, Dr. Doom didn't have an unhappy childhood: they're villains' - get used in the affairs of the real world. At the same time, he also gets unhappy with the lazy way film critics talk about 'comic-book dialogue' when what they mean is simply movie cliche.
He is working on a second novel, about Northampton and its past. More immediately, in about June next year, he and his partner Melinda Gebby will be publishing 'Lost Girls', a project on which Moore and she have been working for a decade. 'Lost Girls' is a graphic novel that explores the erotic and the pornographic - it is startling and innovative and the art work is quite remarkably beautiful.
In the summer of 1914, at a spa in Austria near the Swiss border, three women of varying ages meet, and talk about their sexual awakenings. Since the three women in question are Alice, Wendy and Dorothy - the protagonists of three of the most metaphor-rich children's books of literary history - their conversation and other interactions stray into some weird and wonderful territory - at one point in the artwork, I recognized the original costumes from the first night of Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring'. The chapters about this trio alternate with sections of 'The White Book', an imaginary album of the erotic in which an imaginary story by Colette, or a banned section of 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', are illustrated with pastiches of artists of the time.
We all have views about sex, and yet it is one of the things it is hardest to talk about in art. The interesting thing about Victorian pornography and erotica is that most of it has few preferences - the encounters are an endless polymorphic daisychain punctuated by interesting conversations about sexual etiquette. 'Why can't a pornographic graphic novel be as fine as anything in the field, and still be sexy?' For all his disillusion with the actually existing comics industry, Alan Moore as as in love as he ever was with the wonderful possibility of the hybrid comics to do things that no other art form can manage.