The Rational Shaman 

Watchmen creator Alan Moore’s adventures in magic

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002
Photo by Richard Pleuger

Dressed in black and more than 6 feet tall, his head enshrouded by a mass of hippie hair and beard, writer Alan Moore arrived onstage at London’s South Bank Centre early last year looking as if he’d just strolled off a William Blake engraving. He was Joseph of Arimathea, maybe, with finger armor and knuckle rings, a sheaf of papers and a bottle of mineral water. Moore’s was the last act of an evening of performances by an intriguing mix of contemporary artists, musicians and writers devoted to the work of Blake, the 18th-century artist, poet and political radical. Moore looked up, trained his eyes directly forward, and moved his head and shoulders in a slow, unsettling roll: a fey shimmy at once hypnotic and chilling, signifying our entrance into strange, beautiful and, yes, profoundly Blakean territory. There was music, some of it performed live by its composer, longtime Moore collaborator Tim Perkins. There was a blond woman in angel white, breathing fire. There was a film, designed by mad Lovecraftian illustrator John Coulthart — a darkly psychedelic flickering fractal collage incorporating Blake artwork, solarized landscape footage of contemporary London, and the legendary “Hell” sequence from Harry Lachman’s 1935 film Dante’s Inferno. And there were words: thickets of words, delivered by Moore in his expressive cockney baritone — a narrative that threaded Blake biography and bibliography, poetic flights and dramatic gravity. It was the evening’s most satisfying Blake tribute — rather than simply referencing Blake, Moore conjured him. This wasn’t a performance, it was an invocation.

If you only know Moore from his celebrated 1986 comic book series Watchmen — a dystopian, hyper-rational, super-structured take on superheroes — you would have been startled. Moore is quite obviously no longer the atheist-rationalist who authored dark entertainments like Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta. Since 1994, he has been, like Blake, a mystic. A shaman. A magician. This event was just the latest evidence of how far that obsession has gone.

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“I’m closer to shamanism than I am to sorcery,” Moore tells me on the phone from his home in Northampton, 60 miles north of London. “I get the impression that the shaman in an ancient tribe would have had the same sort of position as a plumber or an electrician. A plumber is a guy who just knows about plumbing and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty when he’s unblocking your S-bend or whatever. A shaman is a guy who knows about traveling to the spirit world and doesn’t mind vomiting because he’s taking poisonous drugs, or getting the horrors of going to hell.

“The idea of secrecy in magic probably sprung up when people started burning witches and magicians, when it became dangerous to be a magician. ‘If you’re a magician, don’t tell anybody. Don’t tell them any of the visions you’ve had or give them any of the information that you struggled so long to accrue. Keep it to yourself.’ And that seems very elitist to me. I’d rather disseminate any information I’m getting by one of the means that are open to me.”

Comics have always been a vehicle for Moore’s ideas — fictions in which to investigate certain interests, political beliefs and (literally, given comics’ visual nature) different modes of seeing. Besides Watchmen and Moore’s breakthrough four-year run on Swamp Thing (described by Moore in 1990 as “a science fiction–fantasy character where I started to be interested in the environmental implications”), there was the uneven but groundbreaking Miracleman (“the superman [understood] as a symbol of a certain sort of power, and what that power would do to the people that have it and the lives of the people around them”); and V for Vendetta, arguably his ’80s masterpiece — a pulp noir about a mysterious, eloquent anarchist revolutionary operating in a 1984-esque future Britain.

And then there was Big Numbers: a 12-issue, 500-page series that Moore intended as his real follow-up to Watchmen and his departure from genre fiction. Described by Moore as “a search for the rudiments of a fractal view of a society . . . like all of the street corner scenes in Watchmen, without any of the superheroes,” the cross-class, cross-ethnic Balzac-ian plot had something to do with the arrival of an American-style shopping mall on a midsized British town. The deeply pessimistic series, which had been mapped out in mathematical precision in a 480-square wall-size grid (“It looks like the work of a mental patient,” chuckles Moore), collapsed after two consecutive artists left the project. Only two issues were published. Moore has no interest in revisiting the project, or any other subject matter similar to the dark-toned work that brought him his first fame in the ’80s.

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