Comics: Editor Eric Berlatsky Discusses His Alan Moore: Conversations Anthology

Speaking with the Wizard of Northampton throughout the years.

By , Columnist

One of the more obvious signs that comics have finally been accepted into the cultural fold like a long lost prodigal is the fact that it’s now become part of the accepted curriculum of many universities and colleges across the country. And, inevitably, this academic interest has led to an incredible increase in the number of scholarly articles, news items, and books focused on comics published each year.

Now, not all of these books will be of any interest to the average civilian, comics fan or no. But many of them do offer real insight into not only the more esoteric aspects of the medium, but also the men and women who make serial comics and graphic novels for a living.

Comics legend Alan Moore is but the most recent of those worthies to get his own academic tome. But don’t let the scholarly aspect of this project fool you. For, just as Moore himself has enjoyed increasing influence into a variety of arts and mediums, this is a book that easily could enjoy real and abiding interest from readers interested in comics, magic, and even more esoteric knowledge.

But don’t take my word for it. Editor Eric Berlatsky is here to tell you all about his latest book, the recently released Alan Moore: Conversations anthology.

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s start with the basics: who is Alan Moore and what about the man or his work is so extraordinary that he deserves a book?

Alan Moore, as anyone who’s ever walked into a comics shop knows, is probably the single most important scriptwriter in mainstream comics, at least since Stan Lee’s 1960’s Marvel work. Given that Lee’s writing was mostly juvenile fare and that his collaborators took on a huge amount of the storytelling burden, I would say Moore is the most important writer (i.e. a creator who usually “just” writes and doesn’t also draw the pictures) in the history of mainstream comics.

Aside from being the most important, I would also say he’s the best, though obviously that’s subjective. I suppose there might be a contender or two out there, but in terms of people who have written substantially for the Big Two [Marvel and DC Comics], it’s hard for me to see any real competition.

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He’s most well known, still I think, for Watchmen, and for his dark deconstructions of the superhero genre there and elsewhere, but he’s also amazingly prolific as a writer and continues to produce interesting and high quality work to the present day.

He’s also branched far away from superhero comics into creator-owned projects like From Hell (with Eddie Campbell) and Lost Girls (with Melinda Gebbie), which, reductively, are about murder and sex, respectively.

As the creator of V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, John Constantine, Watchmen, and From Hell, he’s also provided a steady stream of stories and ideas for Hollywood to ruin, and, I suppose, if people are not comics fans, they probably know many of those titles from the movies.

Anyone who has any interest in comics, however, knows who Moore is. He’s that big of a name and a presence. The fact that he’s also written a novel (Voice of the Fire) and is working on another (Jerusalem), written and performed songs, found time to become a wizard, and engaged in a number of other creative activities, it’s enough to make a slow mover like me tired just thinking about it.

Given that there has been a fair amount of material written by and about the man and his work, what niche, if any, does this new volume fill?

Well, most of the material that’s out there is in the biographical/tribute vein. George Khoury’s book—a great resource by the way—is a single lengthy interview combined with a number of rare scripts, strips, and illustrations. Gary Millidge’s recent book is a “biography of the creator” which stays mostly out of Moore’s personal life, with more rare scripts, strips and illustrations. An earlier book, edited by Millidge and smoky man, is a “tribute” to Moore by fans and friends. In other areas, Annalisa di Liddo's recent book, Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel, is a critical study of Moore’s work, and your own books are two lengthy interviews with the creator.

I’m an academic, so I think academically, I suppose. As such, I’m interested in what kinds of book will help scholars and readers engage with Moore’s comics— what will help us understand it, enrich the experience, engage with it critically. Obviously, a critical reading like Di Liddo’s does some of that, but her book had just come out when I started this project, so I thought it made more sense to compile a book of interviews with Moore in order to facilitate future critical conversation and research, rather than produce another critical study right away.

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That makes perfect sense. So what kind of pieces made it into the anthology?

The book contains ten interviews, starting in 1981 and concluding in 2009. Obviously, this is somewhat different from a single long interview that asks Moore to look back from the present and discuss his career in total, as previous books have done.

The backward-looking interview is great and important, but it doesn’t give you an accurate sense of what Moore was thinking in 1981, before he had started work on any of his major projects. It doesn’t tell you how Moore thought about Watchmen at the time of its release, as opposed to what he says he thought about it later, after his relationship with DC had been pretty well poisoned. 

So, this book is an effort to collect Moore’s assertions at various moments in his career, so that critics and readers can see what he was thinking at the time, and also to track some of his changes over time, some of which I discuss in the introduction to the book.

For example, in a 1984 interview with Guy Lawley and Steve Whitaker, Moore talks about how great it is to work for DC, how they don’t interfere with his creative process, and what an improvement it is over 2000 AD, etc. You won’t get that kind of effusion about DC these days from Moore.

So, you can trace how things started to go bad in “real time,” as it were, instead of getting a retrospective—and necessarily revisionary—view. I think those things are valuable to scholars, but they are also interesting to a more general readership.

How’d it end up with the publisher?

The University Press of Mississippi has a series of these Conversations with… comics creators books, and when I saw that one didn’t yet exist for Moore, it made sense to pitch that to the publisher.

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So, how hard was it to come up with a book’s worth of good material? Are there really that many good interviews and articles about Moore that aren’t already readily available in print elsewhere?

Well, the problem was never coming up with enough good material. In my utopian mindset, I thought I could collect the 20 best interviews and make that a book. I didn’t take into account the fact that Moore is just a great talker—as you know yourself, Bill—and some interviews stretch to 30,000 words or more. So, when the press told me I had a word limit of around 90,000 words, I was a bit flummoxed. Luckily, some people refused to grant me permission to reprint their interviews…and I also had to make some tough choices as to what to cut in order to settle on the ten interviews I do have.

But yes, there are definitely enough good and interesting interviews with Moore to sustain the book—and probably another one or two.I tried to make interesting choices. Including Moore’s first interview seemed like a must. A 1983 interview with David Roach is really Moore at his most unguarded, which is saying something. I felt it was important to have a whole interview devoted to Watchmen and one to Lost Girls, as Moore gave tons of Lost Girls-related interviews at the time of its release.

Moore has been so prolific in his writing that there really isn’t that much overlap between the conversations. Some of the 2001 conversations recur in the 2002 interview, but there’s quite a bit of unique material in both. Given the state of the world today, some of the interviews are on the Internet, but it was important to me to include many that were not. Some are available in other print locations, as well, though their status as remaining in print is variable.

Did you have some kind of mission statement or even just a general intent to help you in that winnowing process?

The most important thing to me was to gather up really good, interesting, and informative interviews. Other things, like relative rarity, did come into play, however, and I think I struck a decent balance. As an academic, my primary concern isn’t really how many copies will I sell. The main thing is to publish a good and useful book. Things appear and disappear from the Internet all the time, so I can’t worry too much if some of this material appears there in some form while the book is still in print. I’d like to think that the book is built to last regardless of where else some of the material can be found at any particular moment.

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So, can you tell us who some of the contributors are, and what about their particular pieces lead to their inclusion?

I’ve mentioned some already, but David Lloyd and Steve Whitaker—both of whom collaborated with Moore on V for Vendetta—turn up as interviewers, both before their work with Moore. Two interviews come from David Kraft’s old Comics Interview magazine, including one by Christopher Sharrett, who’s now a communications professor at Seton Hall. Matthew De Abaitua, a novelist among other things, conducted a great interview in 1998. Chris Mautner, one of our best comics journalists, conducted the Lost Girls interview for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg from 2006.

I mentioned reasons for the inclusion of some of these things earlier, but, for instance, De Abaitua’s interview is great for its discussion of Moore’s ideas about magic and neo-Platonism. They barely discuss comics at all, but that didn’t bother me because the conversation reveals so much about the ideas and philosophies behind the comics that it would help anyone understand From Hell and Promethea, especially.

I had hoped to include Dave Sim’s 30,000 word conversation with Moore, which was first published in Cerebus, which covers much of this territory and provides an in-depth discussion of From Hell. In the end, though, I couldn’t fit it for space, so I included the De Abaitua interview and a conversation with Tasha Robinson in The Onion instead. Robinson discusses From Hell, but doesn’t really get into the esoteric magic and philosophy stuff, while De Abaitua does the esoterica, but not much with the actual comic. Including them both gave me a simulacra of the Sim interview and quite a bit more besides—Robinson asks Moore about Tomorrow Stories, for instance, which rarely gets discussed.

My goal was to cover all of Moore’s “major work” in as much detail as possible, as well as his political, philosophical, and social beliefs. Anything, really, which helps the reader and the critic understand the work. That was my guiding light.

Of course, some people might be more interested in his industry squabbles, his falling out with DC…and with various collaborators. To me, that stuff is more gossip than anything, so I didn’t focus on that. By the time of the 2009 interview, it’s kind of a preoccupation for Moore and it can’t be avoided, so I include it—the same is true of the tail end of the 1988 interview. I didn’t avoid that kind of material, really, but I chose the interviews on the basis of other criteria. So, there’s some industry gossip in there, but it’s not really the focus of the book.

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Jumping back a bit, when did you first come up with the idea for the anthology, and how and why did it change as it developed from that initial conception to the finished product?

To be honest, I had just finished my first book, which actually also came out this year in one of the quirks of the academic publishing schedule, and I was thinking about what my next project would be without having actually done anything. I thought about writing a critical book about Moore, as he’s always been one of my favorite comics creators, and since I had recently started to teach comics and graphic novels here at Florida Atlantic University.

So, I went to the big “English professor” type convention, the MLA Convention, in San Francisco, I think—I think this was 2008—and I kind of haunted the tables of the booksellers there as so many desperate grad students and professors do who are looking for a publishing contract. I knew University Press of Mississippi did a lot of publishing about comics, so I went over to that table, browsed the books, and had a brief conversation with the editor who was there, Walter Biggins. I asked him if they would be interested in a critical book on Moore, or in an edited collection of essays, or in a book of interviews, since I knew they had a series for that kind of thing. Obviously, I had nothing done at the time, since I was willing to pitch three possible projects at once, but Walter was nice and patient and encouraging.

It was then that I learned of Annalisa Di Liddo’s book, which was on their publishing schedule for 2009, so they already had a critical book in the pipeline. Once I knew that, I kind of focused attention on the book of interviews, thinking I would be more likely to leave there with some enthusiasm or some commitment. After that, I read a lot of interviews, worked up a proposal and sent it off to Mississippi…and they were interested right away. And the rest is a very minor and probably uninteresting history.

So you didn’t have to make any changes at all, even minor ones?

The only major changes that I really had to make was a scaling back from my utopian vision of a perfect 20-interview book that covered all the bases to a less perfect, but still perfect enough, ten-interview book that covered most of the bases. I’m really the type of person that hates to start things, but once I’ve started them, I bulldog them through to the end. So, once I had a proposal of what I would do sent to the Press, I pretty much pursued that sucker until it was done, despite a variety of obstacles.

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