Today is the 60th birthday of Alan Moore, one of the strongest, most creative and unique comic voices of the past three decades. I’m sure everyone can join in sending best wishes to him in his beloved Northampton, England. His birthday comes as a great opportunity for me to start writing here at Sequart, and also share a little of my history with the Magus himself.
Like lots of people, I had a long break in my life between comics, from the ages of about 13 to 27. In the interim, I had become a film buff (and a scientist, but that’s another story…), and this led me to working with a group of filmmakers in London, Ontario, on a documentary about comic books in 2002. I’m not sure what my role really was in the actual film, other than hanger-on (I believe the term is “Associate Producer”), but it gave me a chance to meet artists and comic shop owners and explore all the comic-related activity going on in London at that time. One of these shooting days was to change the course of my life.
It was a Saturday and we were profiling one of the local comic shops. As the actual writer and director set up interviews and got cutaway shots and actually made the bloody film, I basically nosed around all morning, flipping through titles, looking at covers and, dare I say, excelling in my role as hanger-on. As we were packing up in the early afternoon, I gave the shop owner a line he must have heard a thousand times before: “Hey, I haven’t been into comics for a while, but I‘d like to read one. What do you recommend?” Needless to say, I went home with a copy of Watchmen in my hands.
The rest of the day was spent on the couch, reading that book. From the first panel, I was hooked, ironically because I saw it as very cinematic (more on that later). But the story, and the style, were absolutely compelling, and I literally did not put it down until I had reached the last page, long after dark. I read it again the next day. On Monday I went right back to the shop and picked up The Dark Knight Returns, which I admired, but try as I might, I kept coming back to Watchmen.
A few more years passed, and by 2010 I had gone back to film school, graduated with an MA in Film and drifted somewhat from comics again. But then an old friend, knowing that I was an Alan Moore fan, noticed that the University of Northampton was staging an academic conference on the work of Alan Moore, and he figured I might be interested in going. Of course I was interested, but couldn’t afford to go just on a whim. So I looked at the conference site, thought about my MA thesis work (on Terry Gilliam), and came up with an abstract for a paper about Moore’s use of the “erotic-grotesque” and how that translated into some of the film adaptations popping up around that time. To my absolute shock, my paper was accepted, the College where I was teaching paid for me to go, and a few months later I was in England, shaking the hand of Alan Moore.
For me, the whole experience was life changing. I made connections and friendships in the world of comic studies that remain to this day. I’ve been back to Northampton often since, and although I haven’t crossed paths with Alan himself, the more time one spends in that midland town, the more Alan Moore’s unique take on the world seems to make sense. Northampton is a very special place, with not only some of the most wonderful people I’ve known but a unique sensibility mixing gothic, steampunk, and no-nonsense working-class England. (For example, the last time I was there, I went to a concert given in a 1000-year-old church featuring Mozart’s Requiem played with a heavy metal rhythm section by tough-looking music students.)
In that world, Moore fits right in. He walks the streets with his robe and staff without much comment. (Local kids call him “The Wizard”, a title he loves.) He supports his local comic shop and knows the proprietor well. He isn’t as much grumpy as shy, and a bit socially awkward, which I’m sure many comic readers can understand. He is, of course, very opinionated, but he can also be very charming, warm, and funny. (When my then-partner bumped into him at the conference, she said that she had gotten me the box set of Lost Girls for Christmas that year. Alan’s response was, “Oh yeah? Is he still with you?”)
Moore’s work extends far beyond comics, into multimedia presentations, straight-ahead rock and roll recordings (he sometimes sings falsetto to 1950s style songs), and lately filmmaking. He is a pure artist, having long since tired of writing super-hero stories, but certainly not of comics as a medium. By linking comics back to ancient traditions of symbolic magic, Moore shows us the way forward into a new understanding of communication in the digital age, even though he personally isn’t very technologically oriented.
Which brings me back to my first impressions of Watchmen. Like many people, I saw comics, for a while, only in terms of their relationship to cinema, that book most of all. After about a dozen readings, with help from some friends who guided my thinking, I began to see beyond that, to the point where now, when I get the opportunity to introduce young students to Watchmen, I go out of my way to show them how it’s not cinematic and how comics have their own vocabulary which can be as subtle and beautiful as any film. So besides everything else, Alan Moore showed me the way in to the world of comics (through film) and then showed me into a deeper world, beyond film, that I could have never imagined.
Needless to say, I’m still there, and I’m excited and honoured to be writing away from that perspective here at Sequart. Happy Birthday to the Magus who showed me the way.