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BAKER'S DOZEN for 01/12/2005
This edition of Baker's Dozen reprints the first two questions -- or pages 9 through 13, inclusive -- from Alan Moore Spells It Out: On Comics, Creativity, Magic and much, much more, available at comic shops, directly from Airwave Publishing, online at Amazon and here.
Whether you first encountered his work via his radical revision of the superhero trope in Marvel UK's Captain Britain, 2000 A.D.'s Miracleman, the book which has become perhaps the seminal graphic novel, The Watchmen, or through his more recent work on Supreme, or on his own line of ABC comics, it's fairly safe to assume that your initial encounter with the work of Alan Moore made some kind of indelible impression--and that it was most likely a positive one. It's also pretty likely that subsequent encounters with his work meet with similar results. If fact, it's almost as if there's something special about Alan Moore's work. And I'm not talking about just being different, but something harder to pin down verbally. Something ineffable, something...
OK, I'll just lay it out: There's something truly magical about Moore's work. Don't believe me? Well, then keep reading as...
Alan Moore Spells It Out
Alan Moore on the connections between creativity, language, and magic
Bill Baker: Would it be fair to say that words in general, as well as storytelling and the act of creation, hold a special kind of magic for you?
Alan Moore: I think that storytelling and creation are very close to the center of what magic is about. I think not just for me, but for most of the cultures that have had a concept of magic, then the manipulation of language, and words, and thus of stories and fictions, has been very close to the center of it all. I mean in some senses, all of humanity's gods, since Paleolithic times, are in some senses a fiction. That is not meant to disparage the entities in question, because I hold fiction in a very special regard. I think that some fictions almost have, well a life of their own in a very special sense. The actual word itself, language itself, to me seems to be the primal technology.
I mean, when people talk about computers, or video games, or the latest sort of piece of hardware that's available, they'll talk about it as new technology. Those things are fruits of technology. Technology is actually writings about a body of knowledge, or technique; that's the "logy" part of the word, which comes from the Greek logos. Basically, it says to me that language is the initial technology upon which everything else is based. I think you could probably make a good argument, and many people have made it, that consciousness itself can't actually happen without language. That we need words -- words such as I, me, myself -- before we can have thoughts that are of any use to us. Yes, we have awareness before that point, we'll be aware of pain and pleasure, but we won't really have any way of talking about those sensations until we have words for them, until we have words for our self.
So it seems to me that all culture, not just magic, but all culture is probably predicated upon language. I don't think it's technology that we completely understand. I think that there are mysteries in language and consciousness which could preoccupy us for hundreds of years, but which we really pay very little attention to. There is the big mystery, of course, as to why we have stories at all.
It would seem that, pretty soon after man had come down from the trees, yes, he found some form of shelter, he found something to eat, he found the means of making a fire, or whatever; but amongst his very first priorities would seem to have been drawing a kind of primitive comic strip explaining how he found the place to stay, the things to eat, and all the rest of it. Now, nature is not known for frilly and purposeless decorations. Everything in the behavior of a species is generally geared towards that species' survival and progress. Since it would seem that art and storytelling have been amongst our very earliest urges, I can only assume that these fictions, these sort of lightweight, throwaway little fables that we've been generating for centuries, must have some importance in what it is that makes us human, and in the human story.
So, yeah, personally, the act of creation, I find it mysterious. You can probe into that mystery, you can investigate that mystery using tools of technique and things that you can learn. But at the center of writing, at least for me, there is a very profound mystery that you could probably never hope to penetrate simply by using logic, common sense, reason, or all of the tools that we usually approach everything else with.
There is something very magical at the heart of writing, and language, and storytelling. The gods of magic in the ancient cultures, such as Hermes and Thoth, are also the gods of writing. I think that you only have to look at most so-called magic to see how much it relies upon the manipulation of language. You have invocations and evocations if you're a magician; you also have those things if you're a poet. And they mean pretty much the same thing in both cases. In magic, you will have your grimoires, your big, dark book of magic secrets. Grimoires is simply a fancier French way of spelling "grammar". To cast a spell, as far as I understand it, is simply to spell. The terminology of magic, and the terminology of language are almost identical. I mean, Aleister Crowley called magic "a disease of language." Something that inevitably emerges from the basic structure of language. That, in a way, our consciousness is made of language. We can't help it. We can't really think of anything unless we have words for it.
George Orwell, in 1984, with his "newspeak" idea, the idea that a tyrannical government might actually be able to limit the vocabulary and language of a population, and in doing so, because people no longer had so rich a language, no longer had so many words that they were capable of knowing, then they would not have so many concepts that were within their grasp. That you could limit the intelligence and consciousness of a population simply by limiting their language. It would seem to me that's probably true, and also that the converse is probably true. That if you expose people to a more interesting and more open form of language, then you might actually expand their consciousness into areas that they perhaps hadn't thought about or considered before.
So, yeah, I'd say that, to me, writing is the most magical act of all, and is probably at the heart of every magical act.
BB: Was this always true for you, or was there a moment when you had an epiphany and realized all of this?
AM: I've always been interested in writing ever since I could write, from primary school onwards. My favorite part of the lessons that I was being given was always composition -- writing essays, making up stories. Yeah, I've always been a sort of compulsive fantasist. It wasn't until fairly recently, when I was about forty, eight or nine years ago, that I started to see these things in terms of magic. But it's always been a motivating force in my life. I wanted, from a very early age, to create characters and create stories about them. This would even go back to when I'd play as a child.
I was thinking about this the other day. I was looking at some of the toys that are available at the moment, where you can get, if you want, action figures of the entire Justice League of America, Justice Society of America, all of the Silver Age villains, all of these sort of great characters of yesteryear. And I was thinking that, at the time, when I was eight or nine years old and reading those comics, I would have killed for a set of action figures that actually reflected the characters in the comics that I was reading. But they weren't available then. If they had been available, I wouldn't have been able to afford them. So what I had to do instead was to take the simple, ordinary toy soldiers that I happened to have lying around, and invest them with something. If I had a spare Indian chief character that was left over from some cowboy and Indian soldiers, then I would probably say that this was some sort of Indian medicine man with supernatural powers. Perhaps he'd traveled across time to be in this sort of superhero group that I was assembling from these tiny, nondescript plastic figures. If I had a toy soldier that was obviously from a different set of soldiers because he was six times as big as any of the other toys in the collection, then I'd try and turn this into a plus by saying that this was Gigantic Man, and so on. I'd have a ball of plasticine that previously had been ... Oh, perhaps you don't call it plasticine over there; it's Playdoh, or modeling clay, something like that. Well, it starts off as lots of different rainbow colors, but after you've had it for two days it's just a maroon-brown blob. That was my shape-shifting, amoeboid villain from another galaxy when I was eight.
My point is that perhaps these days, when any character that you've ever seen on television or read about in a comic book or seen in a movie, you can go out and buy any number of plastic toys that are concerned with that character, any amount of merchandise, a child these days is not really given any great impetus to create their own characters out of their own imagination. In some ways, I'm really, really glad that there weren't cheap, freely available Justice League of America toys when I was seven, because if there had been, I might never have become a comic book writer. I might never have found what fun was to be had in the exercise of the imagination. The imagination is like a muscle, and I think that in a lot of people that muscle tends to atrophy, so that they don't really use their imagination, they're not really encouraged to use their imagination, everything is served up for them prepackaged. They never have to create anything for themselves.
Whereas from my earliest years, my favorite plaything was my imagination. And I really do think that that was what propelled me along the course that lead me to the point where I am today. I think that it's always been there in my life, that urge towards creation, towards fantasy, towards using the imagination. It's probably dictated what most of my reading material has been since I was four years old, since I first learned to read, and it's certainly dictated the kind of life that I've had, and the career that I've chosen. That's always been a factor. And like I say, I do worry about people these days who perhaps have their imaginations spoon-fed to the point where they end up with imaginations that are perhaps enfeebled in some way.
If you haven't been enjoying the recent fruits of Alan's recent labors, particularly From Hell , both volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea, you're needlessly denying yourself the joy of experiencing some of the most creative, entertaining, inventive, and downright awe-inspiring comics work of this protean talent's career. And for those of a more adventurous nature, or who simply want to sample everything Moore-ish, Top Shelf has released CD recordings of his spoken performances as well as editions of his novel, Voice of the Fire, and his luminous extended poem, The Mirror of Love.
[This edition of Baker's Dozen reprints the first two questions -- or pages 9 through 13, inclusive -- from Alan Moore Spells It Out: On Comics, Creativity, Magic and much, much more, available at comic shops, directly from Airwave Publishing, online at Amazon and here. This piece, and the larger interview it excerpts, is © 2003-2005 by Bill Baker. No part of this article, or the primary interview itself, maybe be reproduced without the express permission of Bill Baker or his representatives. Remember, if we all play nice and follow the law, we'll all live happier, lawyer-free lives.]
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