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The Rational Shaman

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.

Blame It on Glycon

“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.

 

“After Watchmen, I felt that I was perhaps coming to a limit as to what I could further understand about writing rationally,” Moore says. “If I was going to go any further into writing, I had to take a step beyond the rational. Magic was the only area that offered floorboards after that step. And it also seemed to offer a new way of looking at things, a new set of tools to continue.

“To some degree, getting involved in magic is almost like deliberately going mad — in a controlled way. The very nature of magic is connected to the irrational — you’re gonna have to step out of the realm of conventional sanity at the very least. For a lot of people, that means stepping out of conventional sanity into conventional insanity.

“For me, I’d say that these days I’m turning out an awful lot more work than ever, even when I was a sleek young gazelle bounding over the precipices of my imagination in my 20s. I’m also very pleased with the quality of it. I’ve done some things in the last few years that I would never have been able to imagine doing before. It’s not that I never did anything good until I discovered magic, but that discovering magic, or at least my notion of it, has given me a bit more of an idea of how I did those good things. The understanding that I’ve gleaned from magic might be wrong-headed for all I know. But as long as the results are good, then I’m not really complaining. I’m on a pretty good roll here, and I think I know why.”

Moore is on a roll. Since embracing magic in 1994, he has finished work with illustrator Eddie Campbell on the 500-page graphic novel From Hell, an exhaustively researched examination of the Jack the Ripper murders (Jack’s a Masonic doctor on a black-magic bent) that has won critical acclaim and been made into a stylish (if barely related) feature film by the Hughes Brothers; published Voice of the Fire, his first prose novel, set across 6,000 years of Northampton history; performed several public “workings” under the auspices of the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, two of which have been adapted into comics by Campbell; released one original CD and three others based on the Moon and Serpent workings; and, in the meantime, launched America’s Best Comics, a line of genre-themed color comic books that has won a ton of industry awards and been singled out for praise by longtime Moore fan Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the comic-centric novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. (One of the series’ titles — The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a lighthearted, lovingly crafted Victorian adventure illustrated by Kevin O’Neill and populated by some of the era’s fictional characters, including Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain and the Invisible Man — is in pre-production at Fox as a feature-length film with a rumored $80 million budget.)

Until 1994, Moore’s relationship with the occult was that of an interested outsider: “I was at least as knowledgeable about the occult as any fantasy-comic writer has to be. But it was theoretical. What was interesting to me was that people believed these things. There was no way that I could say whether their beliefs had any validity.”

Moore began experimenting in magical rituals, cobbled together from various occult traditions and his own intuitions. Occasionally undertaken with one or more of his close friends, the rituals initially involved the use of psilocybin mushrooms, a drug that Moore — a self-described “old hippie,” even in the ’80s — was comfortable with from long experience. But nothing prepared him for the Philip K. Dick–like experience he had with a friend during an eight-hour ritual on January 7, 1994.

“When you’ve found that you’ve spent at least part of an evening talking to an entity that tells you that it is a specific entity — in my case, a second-century Roman snake god called Glycon — there’s only so many ways you can take that. The most obvious way is that you had some sort of hallucination or mental breakdown. Which makes sense, unless there were other people with you who had similar experiences at the same time. Then you say, ‘All right, this was some sort of real experience.’ But you then have to think, ‘Well, was it something that was purely internal? Was this some part of myself that I’ve given a name and face to, or projected in some way?’ That’s possible. Or ‘Was this what it said it was? Was this some entirely external entity that actually was what it claimed?’ The thing that feels most satisfying is the idea that actually it might be both of them. It might be both inside you and outside you. That doesn’t make any logical sense, but that satisfies me most emotionally. It feels truest.

 

“Of course, the philosopher Lucien explains that the whole Glycon cult was an enormous fraud, and that Glycon was a glove puppet,” he continues, laughing. “To me, I think that’s perfect. If I’m gonna have a god, I prefer it to be a complete hoax and a glove puppet because I’m not likely to start believing that a glove puppet created the universe or anything dangerous like that. To me, the idea of the god is the god. It doesn’t ã matter what form it takes. This is one of the problems that Christianity has for me. Christianity’s got some lovely concepts. You’ve got this wonderful story with complete integrity. As a story, it’s fine. It’s rich in symbolism. It’s rich in moral awareness. However, Christianity also insists upon a historical Jesus. If it was ever proven that Jesus didn’t exist, the whole of Christianity would fall to pieces. Because they insist that this was definitely real, that he was definitely born of a virgin, that he definitely died on the cross and then definitely physically ascended to heaven. All of which sounds like bollocks to me.

“Now I don’t believe that there was ever a living snake that had a semihuman head and long hair and spoke. That would be mad to believe that. I believe that, yeah, Alexander the false prophet has got some really clever scam going involving a puppet and a boa constrictor. But nevertheless, that was a representation of the god. That was not the god. The god is the idea of the god, and that was what I believe visited me and my friend upon this first occasion, and what I’ve had contact with on subsequent occasions. Magicians would say there was a ‘serpent current,’ if you like, an energy that people could connect up to. And they might understand this energy in a number of different forms — as Asclepius or Glycon or Kundalini or whatever — but it’s essentially a sinuous kind of energy that we associate with the snake and a certain sort of consciousness.”

Promethea learns From Promethea #12: The Magic Theater Art by J.H. Williams & Mick Gray

This experience — which Moore alternately calls a magical revelation, a midlife crisis and a mental breakdown (“It’s all the same to me!”) — had a lasting effect.

“It’s not a peculiar space that I visit through the means of drugs — it’s where I am all the time. I mean, it’s difficult to walk past a set of traffic lights and watch the changing of the colors without thinking of what the progression from red to amber to green means in kabbalistic terms. The world is kind of pregnant with revelation if you’re somebody who comes equipped with the right kind of eyes and the right kind of phrase book, if you like, for decoding. Magic is, in a sense, a kind of language with which to read the universe, a language of symbols with which you can extract meaning from the most mundane things.

“One way to look at it is to say each religion is a language, and magic is . . . linguistics. For a linguist, then, there’d be no such thing as a ‘false’ language. It’s not like, ‘Oh yeah, French is good, but Russian is not a real language.’ I mean, there are words in German for which we don’t have a concept in English, and vice versa. So the thing is, you have to accept all religions as being . . . they’re all true languages! I need to understand the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, of the Greeks, of the Romans, of the Gnostics, of the Christians, of John Dee, of current occultists, of the Hebrews, of the kabbalists. To some degree I take the quantum position that in order to see truth, you have to consider a lot of different possible positions and hold them all to be true in some mysterious way. Magic is moving between those different positions, studying them, seeing what information there is to be gleaned from each of them, seeing how they connect up. How a story in the New Testament seems to connect up with an ancient Egyptian legend. And how this in turn relates to one of the Tarot cards. Which gives it a certain position on the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah. And if you follow through these chains of ideas long enough, you start to get a different set of synaptic connections in your brain, different pathways. You start to see things in a different way.

 

“I’m not really interested in anybody else’s opinion of the validity of my magical system. These are gnostic experiences — you’ve either had them or you haven’t. It’s stuff that I’ve worked out myself and with the other people that I’ve worked with, and I am prepared, at the drop of a hat, to give demonstrations.”

Moore’s performance at the Blake tribute was one such demonstration. He’s also made paintings of some of the various entities he’s encountered.

“They were beautiful — it was obvious that he’d been somewhere and brought something back,” says Bauhaus/Love & Rockets’ David J. He and musician Tim Perkins were invited by Moore to participate in private rituals designed to generate some sort of performance art.

“Alan would ask for a desire to be fulfilled,” he remembers. “He would direct it in a certain way by just meditating and really conjuring up a couple of sentences. Those sentences would suggest something, and he would read it aloud. It had a flow, a beautiful flow. Alan has such a retentive mind, he could look back on everything that happened over eight hours and condense it and write it all down, and then that would be the narrative. He’d come to me and Tim and say, ‘Read this. Does it provoke any sounds?’ And it always did. Instantly. I saw it as a film Alan was projecting, a soundscape in pieces. Looking back on it, it almost looks like a piece of planned theater, but it wasn’t — it was totally spontaneous.”

The trio’s first collaboration, performed in London in July of ’94 (and later released on CD as The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels), was by most accounts a success. And, as with most things having to do with the occult, there was an element of spookiness.

“I think there were several entities present. And indeed, the photograph” — a grainy black-and-white shot taken at the rehearsal, used as the CD’s cover — “seems to be some kind of weird evidence that that was the case. As far as I can make out, ã there’s a woman dressed in Victorian garb, maybe a wedding dress with a wedding train coming out from one of her hands, floating out over Alan, enveloping him.”

Paranoia, Promethea, Pornography

Moore’s current work is noticeably lighter than his work in the ’80s. “I perceived the ’80s as very dark times,” he says, “and at the same time I could see that there were a lot of people around me who were working quite hard at pretending that they weren’t very dark times. I was seeing — environmentally and politically — all these long, looming shadows, and I felt that it was necessary to sound a wake-up call. When Margaret Thatcher had been in for a couple of years, and we were starting to get riot police sent into previously peaceful urban centers, and the Conservative Party was catering to the far-right groups by bringing in pieces of practically Nazi legislation — things like the anti-homosexual ‘Clause 28’ bill — it seemed necessary then to stroke a few dark chords and try and wake people up to where they were headed.

“Now, from my perspective, where I thought we were headed back then, we’re there now. We’re in quite a dark space, particularly given the current international situation. And I don’t think that it’s of any more use to ram the darkness down people’s throats. I think they’ve had enough of that. At the moment, I’m more concerned with trying to give people access to the mental tools to get them beyond this situation, not to warn them about how bad things are getting. That’s not to say there aren’t political observations in my books, but they’re applied with a lighter touch now.”

One wonders if there wasn’t also a personal toll to Moore’s earlier work — from the supernatural frightwork of Swamp Thing, to the Cold War paranoia of Watchmen, to the real-world horror shows of his investigations into the history of the CIA (Brought to Light), the Jack the Ripper murders (From Hell) and the many local historical atrocities chronicled in Voice of the Fire.

“Every work that you do, it takes it out of you,” sighs Moore. “When you’ve finished a book like Watchmen, you do feel quite battered. If you’re going to affect your readers, it’s more or less your responsibility to put yourself through some difficult hoops. From Hell: That was a long journey through some very dark territory. Some of the voices that I conjured in Voice of the Fire, you know, it’s hard to live with those people.”

The Ripper plots in From HellArt by Eddie Campbell  

How much longer could Moore have kept jumping through those hoops?

“Well . . . I don’t know. I’m glad that I stopped when I did,” he laughs. “After you’ve been down in the sewers of the human experience for a while, it doesn’t hurt to freshen up a bit. There’s a part of that in it. But this is not to say that I’m not going to be going anywhere dark in the future. Basically, there’s much less of a plan to what I do than perhaps there appears. I tend to work mostly from instinct.”

At the moment, Moore’s comic output is huge. Probably the most groundbreaking — and explicitly magic-oriented — is his ABC title Promethea, a visually stunning ongoing series that’s something like Buffy meets Harry Potter at The Bodhi Tree Bookstore for an LSD afternoon. (The current “Kabbalah road trip” storyline is, when you think about it, not too far from one of Blake’s illuminated manuscripts . . . or a film by Kenneth Anger or Maya Deren . . . or a sketchbook by Austin Osman Spare . . . all artists involved in the occult.)

Moore is also completing work on Lost Girls, a non-ABC title begun in the early ’90s with the artist Melinda Gebbie (also Moore’s girlfriend).

Lost Girls is a work that’s very close to my heart,” says Moore. “I’ve always wanted to do some good pornography. And I do use the word pornography rather than the word erotica, without apology. I think pornography is a much more un-pretentious and robust word. And also, it upsets more people! Which has never been a bad thing. What I’d like to do is something absolutely radiant, wonderful, filled with light and grace and art, and then call it ‘pornography’ so that people have to re-define what the term means to them. It’s looking lovely. Melinda’s artwork is absolutely transcendental.”

Meanwhile, Moore is mulling over an idea with Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons (“Dave said, ‘We’ll send everybody mad!’ and I think that indeed we might”) and something that he jokingly calls Uncle Al’s Big Book of Magic, a grimoire that would outline at length Moore’s many ideas about magic — what it is, how it works, what’s its history, what’s its place in the history of human consciousness and endeavors, et cetera.

“Magic no longer seems anywhere near as extreme as it once did,” he says. “It’s become much more everyday for me. It has given me a kind of world-view that is complex and elegant enough to actually file the incredible amount of information that I and everybody else living in the 21st century take in as a matter of course during our everyday lives.

“Also, I really like the interior décor,” he jokes. “You’ve got to say that being into magic beats being into, say, football, you know. My house looks just lovely. There’s an Austin Osman Spare on a wall, there’s a set of Golden Dawn magic wands, I’ve got the John Dee Enochian tables all in color up on another wall. I think that’s probably better than pictures of Britney Spears.”

Special thanks to Dr. Stephan Hoeller and Meltdown Comics.

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