In his first collection of short fiction, Illuminations: Storiesout now from Bloomsbury Publishing, legendary comics writer Alan Moore offers nine stories ranging from his earliest short prose to the 2021 novella, “What We Can Know About Thunderman,” a scathing fictional dissection of the American comic book industry.
P.W. spoke via Zoom with Moore—regarded as one of the greatest comics writers of all time—about his retirement from comics and why, the influence of comics writing on his prose, and his deep misgivings about the superhero genre and regrets over his role in its current popularity.
Publishers Weekly: What led to your first try at short prose fiction in 1987?
Alan Moore: I started out, as a teenager, as part of what used to be called the psychedelic left in England, in the 60s and 70s. And I would do practically everything—I would be performing, I would be writing prose fiction, I’d be writing poetry, I’d be doing illustrations. This is the background that I come from, basically doing all sorts of things. The fact that I became focused for largely economic reasons upon comics, was just that that was the most practical thing to do. And I was very, very good at it. But I’ve always, throughout my entire career as a comics writer, been doing all sorts of other artistic ventures, I’ve been writing things in all sorts of media, it’s just that they don’t tend to get seen by as wide an audience. So in 1985, it was more a matter of, I’d like to let people see what I can do when I don’t necessarily have pictures illuminating the narratives. I figured that I’m pretty good with prose. And so basically, when I was given the opportunity to write a short story for the Liavek shared-world anthology, I thought, yeah, this might be nice to let people know that I can do other things rather than just comics. And I was very pleased with the result.
Was there anything from writing for comics that was helpful for shifting to short prose fiction?
Well, I think that if you’re taking a multidisciplinary approach to your writing, then you’ll find that whatever field that you’re working in, that will greatly help all of the other fields—there are approaches and understandings that are transferable . And that’s particularly the case with comics. Throughout my comics career, I have done probably the most detailed scripts in the industry. My scripts were huge, unwieldy things that would be giving the artists the directions for everything from characters’ expressions, to lighting, to the position of people, to the angle of the shot—everything, so that was very useful when it came to short prose writing. Because I’ve often felt that my prose writing must read like somebody who is used to having an artist, and is trying to compensate for that, I do tend to be very rich, in my descriptions, because I am trying to do the same thing for the reader, as I would be doing in my instructions to the artist; I’m trying to conjure the scene that in my head, and transfer that to, in the case of comics, to the artist, or in the case of strike fiction, purely directly to the reader. So yes, that has helped a great deal.
In 2020, you’d stated that when you “entered the comics industry, the big attraction was that this was a medium that was vulgar, created to entertain working class people, particularly children.” What about that attracted you to the industry in the first place?
Exactly that. I mean, I came from a working-class background. And I had noticed that the entertainment that is generally given to working class people is fraught with an expectation of perhaps stupidity, or an inability to understand things. Working-class people tend to be treated as almost childlike by the broader culture. And the opportunity that I saw in comics was a medium, which was cheap, accessible, very fast, whereby ideas that I thought might be helpful to a broad mass of people could be communicated to them. Interesting new ideas could be communicated to them very quickly, very cheaply, and would be within everyone’s reach.
But that changed.
I think that, possibly largely through my own efforts, around the 1980s, the comics field became gentrified. I think that graphic novels are the equivalent of studio loft apartments. I think that it is now a medium that is largely there to entertain the standard middle-class audience, people who don’t necessarily need these ideas so much as the people for whom they were originally intended. That was what used to attract me to comics. And that is amongst the many factors that have actually separated me from comics, where I no longer think that comics are providing that function.
What accounts for the gap between your 2018 retirement from comics, and writing the 2021 story “What We Can Know About Thunderman” when, as you state in this book’s acknowledgments, the story “exploded like a launched boil”?
Comics is a wonderful medium. I think it’s a lousy industry, but a wonderful medium. But by and large, I wanted nothing to do with comics anymore. However, having said that, and having internalized it, are two different things. I’ve found that having worked in comics for nearly 40 years, it tends to leave its psychological tracks. It’s easy to say, I’m not going to work in comics anymore, and I don’t want anything to do with comics anymore. That’s all easy. But to actually stop thinking about comics, generally in a negative light, in my own circumstances, is more difficult. I found that the comics industry was haunting me.
There will be things that you will find your mind returning to, even if you don’t want them to. So I think that “What We Can Know About Thunderman” was an attempt at an exorcism. I’d been thinking for a long time, yeah, you want to write something about your experiences in the comics industry, but I don’t know quite how you could do it. And I’d been wrestling with that. And then all of a sudden, the title, popped into my head. And I saw a different way that this could be approached, a way that could actually be, although horrific, quite funny. And I started writing it, and it seems to just flow out, I hadn’t realized that I’ve got that much poison bottled up inside me.
And having launched the boil in 2021, has having written that story had a therapeutic benefit for you?
An immense therapeutic value! I am no longer haunted by old comics in the way that I was before—I can go for days or weeks without thinking about them. It was immensely helpful. Of course, I’ve just unloaded all of my nightmarish problems onto the general readership. So I apologize for that. But I’m feeling a lot better off.
Was the 2021 timing of writing “Thunderman” connected to the rise of Trumpism?
Well, yes, because I realized a long time ago that if I was going to talk about comics, as I see them, that would involve talking about a lot of other things. About 2011 or 2012, I was interviewed by somebody who asked my opinions upon the modern superhero film phenomenon. And I said that I found it immensely worrying. Because the idea that hundreds of millions of adults were queuing up to see characters and situations that were created to entertain 12-year-old boys 50 years before, I found socially worrying, because it seemed to speak to me of a kind of retreat into infantilism.
We are living in an unbearably complex world that I think many people find overwhelming, that they have no idea how they can even begin to engage with. And I think that in times like that, historically, you’ll find people seeking a more simplistic world that they can bail out into. And it struck me that what we were potentially looking at was the rise of populist fascism. When people are under pressure, and when they don’t feel they can deal with it, then a simpler narrative seems to be something that a lot of people will reach for, whether that is the simple narrative of all of your problems are being caused by the Jewish banking conspiracy in Germany in the 1930s, or whether that is the simpler narrative of, say, the QAnon conspiracy theorists, or whether that is the simple narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where problems are all being caused by some unlikely threat or villain or monster, and the solution will be some equally unlikely and implausible superhero. I noted, for example, that in the year that Trump was elected, and that a lot of the British people seemed to vote for withdrawing from the European Union, six of the twelve best-selling films were superhero movies.
This may be just me, imposing my personal prejudices upon the world situation, but I don’t think so. I think that generally, in our trash culture, we are very often able to see the various tensions and stresses that are present in our broader society. And so yes, I do think that the superhero has become almost a white supremacist, a sort of symbol of the kind of simplistic thinking that we are still trying to apply to an incredibly complex world. And which doesn’t seem to be working out for us. I did feel that comics, and particularly the superhero movie industry, have got a lot to answer for in that respect. So yes, Thunderman was a very useful vehicle for being able to connect those ideas together.