Alan Moore: The art of magic

By Sam Proctor

Alan Moore image courtesy of Joe Brown

Comics legend Alan Moore is the author of titles including Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta and From Hell. He is also a ceremonial magician and co-founded the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. Alan sees an inextricable link between magic and artistic creativity, which he explored in his Promethea series. Sam Proctor asked him more…

SP: You have said your interest in magic was piqued while you were researching Freemasonry for From Hell and you announced your intention to become a ceremonial magician on your 40th birthday. Tell us about what led you to make such a radical life change.

ALAN: As might be expected, numerous factors entered into the decision. One of these, actually unrelated to my incidental research into Freemasonry, was a line of dialogue that I had given to From Hell’s main character, stating that the one place gods inarguably existed was within the human mind, where they were real in all their ‘grandeur and monstrosity’.

Further consideration of the implications in this casually-written line left me with no apparent way of refuting it and thus necessitated an adjustment to my previously too-narrow rationality.

The hitherto unexamined territory of magic seemed to me the only area of human knowledge that potentially might offer some way of resolving these intriguing new ideas. Declaring myself as a magician, with the attendant risk of ridicule and loss of reputation, seemed to me at the time to be a necessary first step into a radically extended identity, an opinion that I haven’t altered since.

Of course, having the nerve to make such a potentially disastrous leap into the intellectual dark was greatly abetted by the fact that I was in a biker pub celebrating my birthday, the Jazz Butcher was playing and I was hugely pissed.

What kind of relationship do you have with Glycon and why did you adopt him as your patron deity?

I’d been advised by Steve Moore [the late comics writer, no relation to Alan], who knew about such things, that a useful entry into magic might be to adopt a god-form as a patron deity and ritual focus, much as he had done with the Greek moon-goddess Selene. I should either find a divinity which took my fancy, or let one find me. Shortly thereafter, when Steve was showing me a book of Late Roman antiquities, I came across a photo of Glycon’s statue, as unearthed in 1962 at Constantza in Romania. In that extraordinary image, at once comical and profound, I found what I was looking for.

After that first instinctual adoption of the snake-god as a personal symbolic deity the relationship deepened, both through what seemed to be spectacular early contact with the idea form itself – back when I probably still needed spectacular results to convince me that there was any value in the path I’d chosen – and through my subsequently deeper understanding of the symbol-entity attained through careful reading and deliberation.

My relationship with Glycon, though necessarily pyrotechnic 20 years ago, has been internalised as part of my own personality and processes, which seems more suited to this current and more focused phase of magical activity through which I’m moving, where I have no need for visionary reassurance.

If anything, Glycon is more real, more present and more fully understood to me now than he was back during those first dazzling years.

Do you think magic can give us a way of seeing, understanding and relating to the world and ourselves that science and psychology cannot?

In the forthcoming Moon & Serpent Bumper Book of Magic we argue that consciousness, preceded by language, preceded by representation (and thus art) were all phenomena arising at around the same momentous juncture of human development and that all of these would be perceived as magic, an umbrella term encompassing the radical new concepts born of our discovery of our new, inner world.

This allows us to offer a definition of magic as a ‘purposeful engagement with the phenomena and possibilities of consciousness’. We then go on to argue that originally, all of human thought and culture was subsumed within the magic worldview, with the advent of urban society and the rise of specialised professionals gradually stripping magic of its social functions.

Organised religions first removed its spiritual capacity, while an attendant rise of authors, artisans and artists would remove its role as the dispensing source of vision. Viziers usurped the shaman’s tribal role as a political consultant. This left the still-vital functions of alchemical research, healing and the investigation of the inner world as fruitful areas of magical endeavour until the Renaissance and the advent of the Age of Reason delegated the first two of these to the emerging fields of science and medicine, and around1910 the third was rendered obsolete by Freud and Jung’s new ‘science’ of psychiatry.

We suggest that the entirety of the culture in which we currently reside is no less than the dismembered corpse of magic (although somehow still with a seeming capacity for speech) and that this no-doubt necessary process is exemplified by the alchemic principle of Solvé, or analysis.

Our thesis is that what is now required is a complementary process of Coagula, or synthesis, in order to complete this all-important formula. To this end, we propose that art and magic should be more closely connected to the massive benefit of both endeavours, as argued in my essay Fossil Angels, and that the next step should be to enhance the existing bond between the arts and sciences, including psychiatry, which I have elsewhere characterised, not disrespectfully, as ‘occultism in a lab coat’.

The final, most important and most problematic step would be to foster a connection between science and politics, ensuring that political decisions are made in the light of current scientific understanding, utilising the advances science has made in, for example, conflict resolution, to the betterment of humankind in general.

To finally answer your question, one of the many things that magic offers is a plausible and, I believe, rational worldview in which science, psychology and all the other fields mentioned above are joined up and connected meaningfully into the all-embracing, one-stop science of existence they first emerged from. (Paracelsus, pretty much the father of most modern medical procedure, was also the first person to employ the term ‘unconscious’, some four hundred years before its subsequent appropriation by psychoanalysis.)

With magic, at least as we define it, the chief benefit in terms of relating to the world is that it offers us a coherent and sensibly integrated world with which to relate. Also, unlike the other fields of enterprise mentioned above, excepting only art and creativity, magic is centred wholly on the principles of ecstasy and transformation, things we believe to be the pivot of human experience and therefore sorely lacking in contemporary society.

Alan Moore 2You once said you’d heard it reported that Einstein kept a copy of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine open on his desk. He worked in a very imaginative way and said arrived at his theories through visualisation. Is there a barrier that needs to come down between the material and occult sciences that could benefit mainstream science?

Einstein offers us a good example. He claimed that he had received the inspiration for his work on relativity while in a kind of visionary daydream where he pictured himself running neck-and-neck beside a beam of light. James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the DNA molecule, allegedly deduced the structure from a dream of spiral staircases.

Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist who shoehorned indigo into the spectrum in accordance with the alchemical fondness for the number seven.

It could be argued that when science and magic were first separated, each lost something vital: science gave up its ability to address any kind of inner world, while magic to a certain extent would seem to have forfeited much of its intellectual discrimination. As outlined above, a reintegration of these divorced areas of human consideration would, I feel, be of great benefit to all parties concerned.

You see an inextricable link between magic, imagination and creativity, an idea stressed in your Promethea series. Tell us about that connection.

As previously stated, it is my position that art, language, consciousness and magic are all aspects of the same phenomenon. With art and magic seen as almost wholly interchangeable, the realm of the imagination becomes crucial to both practices.

The kabbalistic lunar realm of the imagination is called Yesod, this being a Hebrew word which means ‘Foundation’. This suggests that the imagination is the sole foundation upon which all our higher mental functions are dependent and, also, through which they are accessible. Magic, in our formulation, seems intimately involved with creativity and with creation, in whatever sense we mean those terms.

Promethea has been described as a ‘kabbalistic road trip’ and gives a breathtaking overview of the occult sciences. It opens the door onto that world and seems to invite people to learn more about it. Was that your intention?

My original intention with Promethea, a title which I do not own and thus spend little time thinking about these days, was to create a more imaginative and better-conceived model for a modern superhero comic, using the Margaret Brundage cover girls and Leigh Brackett heroines of the pulp era as my starting point.

Within an issue or two, I began to see how such a character might be evolved so as to lucidly express the magical ideas that had by then for some time been right at the centre of my thinking and my whole approach to creativity.

In the later stages of the story full episodes are devoted to exploring each sephirah on the Tree of Life. Is it true that you wrote about the states the characters experience in them while you were in a state of ritual meditation?

I had begun exploring the lower sephirah some time before commencing my work on Promethea, spheres six to 10 investigated by a combination of invented ritual and psychedelic drugs.

When I reached that point in my ‘kabbalistic road trip’, I needed to experience the higher spheres in order to authentically convey them to the reader. One sphere, Chokmah, was attained using the above method, while for the others I decided to see if the intense meditation of creative writing itself would be sufficient as a means of entering those separate realms of consciousness and being.

Using the criterion that ‘if you can’t imagine the experience then you haven’t properly attained the sphere’, I found I was able to investigate all of the higher spheres to my satisfaction.

Kether was a partial exception, in that I ate a large piece of hashish, wrote the first three pages of the issue and then pretty much passed out.

The Promethea strips cram in esoteric knowledge on multiple levels. Beyond the words and outline images, for instance, the sephirah episodes use colour schemes appropriate to the world addressed. This is reminiscent of the Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot, which uses sephirah colours and flashing colours on backgrounds so that users can soak up information in a quick visual hit. The level of detail in Promethea is staggering – was it planned as a complete vision before work began or did it grow and develop on the hoof?

As implied above, the initial impetus was towards a much more conventional narrative and the project seemed to develop instinctually and organically as we progressed.

On the subject of the kabbalistic colour schemes, having by then absorbed the lesson that, while the numbers, jewels, plants, animals, perfumes and deities are attributes of the various sephiroth, the colours are said to be the sephiroth themselves.

Although we weren’t sure if the various colour scales would be appropriate in terms of modern comics publishing, we decided to stick with the idea and, thanks to the extraordinary work of Jeromy Cox, were rewarded with a beautifully involving demonstration of the atmospheric power of kabbalistic decor.

Asmodeus webArtist JH Williams III said creating the Abyss issue in Promethea took its toll on all involved in the project. Were there any other significant experiences during the creation of the series?

Well, there was my experience preceding the creation of the Chokmah issue, which took place in Steve Moore’s company on the night of Friday, April 12th, 2002, when we were attempting to establish whether anyone else could see the moon goddess that he’d spent the last month or so attempting to materialise, as recounted in my psycho-biographical narrative, Unearthing.

Not only was the experiment an apparent success but that was the same evening that a voice inside my head (unusually, my own voice, although seemingly detached from my volition) told me that I had become a Magus, which, delusory or not, I decided to take seriously. I also received a very firm conviction that Promethea #32 would be the final issue and would somehow be constructed so that it converted to a double-sided psychedelic poster.

After Steve had departed I wrote and typed the Chokmah issue – it was issue #22, something like that – in under seven hours in a characteristically Chokmah-like spurt of unformed and spontaneous energy. Still not a patch on Moorcock at his nippiest, but something of a personal best at the very least.

Since then, my life and my perceptions have been noticeably different.

You have always disowned film adaptations of your works and insist that they can’t translate between the mediums – as directors Zac Snyder and Stephen Norrington proved with Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen respectively. It is obvious that Promethea could not have worked in any other medium. Why are comics such a different experience?

I’m not sure that comics are actually a different experience, so much as I’m convinced that almost any adaptation of a narrative into a medium for which it was not intended is very probably going to be pointless, if not a complete trivialisation and distortion of the original viable idea.

Part of the pleasure of reading a comic is that the images on the page are not moving or making a noise, forcing the audience to do more of the genuinely pleasurable and involving work of constructing the story for themselves, just as it’s famously stated that the pictures are better on radio, to which we might add that the voices are more convincing in a book.

Have there actually been any rumblings about a screen adaptation of Promethea?

Given the lack of connection between me and either the mainstream comic industry or the film industry, I wouldn’t have heard anything, or expressed any interest if I had.

I would have hoped that people would have learned that bringing disowned former ideas of mine to the big screen against my best advice tends to lead to a flood of anarchists stampeding across the world stage dressed as the main character from V for Vendetta. An attempt to film Promethea would almost certainly result in the apocalypse – but that’s probably more a matter to take up with Warner Bros, rather than with me.

Promethea is the latest in a long line of female leads you have written, stretching back to the mould-breaking Halo Jones in 2000AD. What attracted you to writing female leads?

I don’t think I’ve done more stories with female leads than with male ones. If there seems a preponderance of female characters in my work, that’s probably born of an attempt to address the gender imbalance prevalent across culture by emphasising the female perspective in my small part of that culture.

On the other hand, my almost-complete HP Lovecraft series, Providence, has hardly any female characters and, given that this work is derived from the notoriously female-averse Lovecraft, most of the ones who do feature turn out to be appalling monsters.

I should perhaps point out that this is Lovecraft’s probable perception of womankind, rather than my own.

In your Fossil Angels essay of 2002 you suggest the ritual and language surrounding magic has conspired to keep people out. Was Promethea a way of breaching these barriers and awakening the masses to the magical traditions?

The entire agenda of the Moon & Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels (of which Promethea was clearly an unofficial part) since its inception has been to express the ideas of magic in as beautiful and lucid a way as possible.

In our Bumper Book of Magic we go further and demand that modern magicians position themselves at the very centre of society rather than skulking at its margins, engaging with science, art, politics, philosophy and social issues as if they had every right to, and thus reconnecting magic with the population that it was initially designed to serve and to enlighten.

You were working on the Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic with the late Steve Moore. The work aims to present esoteric knowledge in a totally down to earth manner. Would it be fair to say that the work is a logical next step from Promethea and what stage is the book at?

It would be more accurate to say that Promethea was an instructive first attempt, an unofficial Moon & Serpent offering that helped shape our ideas for the more serious grimoire that we’d always talked of one day perpetrating.

The final essay is concluded, although I still have some sections of the book that I need to go back and finish and we’re assigning artists to the various sections as we speak. I’m thinking 2016 at the earliest.

What sources have you found most helpful on your own magical journey?

Everything that I’ve read has been in some way useful to me, even the demented bilge that sometimes swills around the field, which gives one some instruction on how not to think.

On the positive side, I’d have to say Robert Anton Wilson’s work was massively enlightening, that William Blake and Austin Osman Spare provided some invaluable pointers and that above all the single biggest influence upon my magic practice and my magic theory is, assuredly, the late Steve Moore.

In Fossil Angels you argued the need for a sea change in attitudes towards magic. Do you think anything has changed since it was written?

Usually, these ideas take years or decades before they eventually snowball into visibility. I’m sure there have been minor changes here and there, but wouldn’t expect to see a reaction yet.

I think there’s more work to be done upon defining or redefining the public identity of magic before a significant number of people would be prepared to take such a proposition seriously.

More artists seem to be opening up to magical working – and being open about it. Fellow comics writer Grant Morrison is a devotee of Chaos magic who referred to his Invisibles series as a hypersigil. What do you make of the work that is being created by such practitioners?

I’m afraid I have no interest in Grant Morrison or his work and do not consider him to be either a writer or a magician. With regard to Chaos magic, from a Moon & Serpent point of view it seems that this was simply a more punk-themed English version of the largely Californian ‘New Age’ movement, with both insisting upon simple (and simplistic) magic systems that would bring solely material benefits without any need for dreary scholarship or discipline, the latter styling itself on the worst rainbow-and-unicorn excesses of the 1960s and the former draping itself in the wardrobe of Joey Ramone from only ten years later.

With Chaos magic’s recent move from conjuring the gods of HP Lovecraft to ‘magically’ interacting with the Discworld entities of Terry Pratchett, it appears that both this and the New Age movement were perhaps more properly extensions of fantasy fandom, an attempt at astral cosplay, than they were sincere attempts at furthering the cause of magic.

You rate Austin Osman Spare highly as both artist and magician. Has he been a big influence on your magic and your art?

Of course. After William Blake, whom he admired, Spare is the most visible example of our equivalence between magic and art. As an artist, he had a unique and singular source of inspiration. As a magician, his talent was the next best thing to a Polaroid camera recording where he’d been and making the experience accessible to ordinary, uninitiated individuals.

In Austin Osman Spare I see a near-perfect magician, at least according to my own lights, and by the same standard at the same time see an almost perfect artist. Similarly, as with Blake, I can’t help but note and admire the fiery individual moral core that both men situated at the centre of their practice and their lives.

As I’ve said before, we have no reason to assume that magic is a morally neutral force, like electricity. In fact, I’m not even sure about electricity.

Like yourself, Austin Osman Spare was unimpressed by the pomp and ceremony of organised groups and was very much his own man. He also believed in selecting the strands of different traditions that worked for him to form his own model, again something that chimes with comments you have made previously. Would you say you are driven by a gnostic principle?

Well, to an extent, in that I think it very likely Christianity is a misunderstanding and a gross literalising of Gnostic symbolism, but the Gnostics had themselves absorbed the teachings of bygone traditions such as Neo Platonism and Pythagorean teachings.

Ultimately, I identify with the first principles of shamanism, although I’m happy to draw upon all of the field’s astonishing developments since its primordial inception.

GlyconAustin Osman Spare was an advocate of automatic drawing. Have you ever used an automatic writing technique to arrive at or develop ideas?

The only occasion I can actually remember attempting to utilise automatic techniques was when working with my friend and musical associate Joe Brown upon a song that was, appropriately, based on Spare’s life and techniques.

We sampled a variety of real-life incidental sounds, including struck or rubbed glass and the sound of breathing, and then Joe removed his shoes and socks and played the sample-laden keyboard with his toes, producing an enormous stream of unlistenable random noise from which we extracted a couple of accidentally interesting minutes and then looped them, using the resultant ‘melody’ to generate the Spare-related lyrics. Maybe we should go back and finish that sometime.

Is the bardic tradition in Druidry and its tapping of the Awen something you can relate to?

Certainly. The Bardic tradition of magic, when satires were justifiably more feared than curses and when the creator was respected as a powerful magician rather than as someone getting by out on the fringes of the entertainment industry, is one that today’s artists, occultists and writers would do well to reacquaint themselves with. You can kill or cure with a word. Get off of your knees.

Do you see ceremonial magic as something accessible and unproblematic for everyone, be they Druid, Heathen, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever?

Well, if people are immersed in what Robert Anton Wilson referred to as ‘a reality tunnel’, and it’s a religious mindset that construes the magical as non-existent, evil or forbidden, then engaging with it will hardly prove accessible and unproblematic. I believe it best to enter magic with a genuinely open mind and no ‘lust of result’. If your mind isn’t voluntarily receptive on the way in, then it’s much more likely to be crow-barred open by the magical experience itself, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Religious or rationalistic preconceptions, I believe, amount to what Blake termed our ‘mind-forged manacles’ and may prove antithetical to actual progress in the subject.

You are a famously stalwart Northamptonian. Is part of this to do with a link you feel with the land and your ancestors?

I feel connected to the historical, geographical, socio-political and genetic processes from which I have resulted. Also, by remaining in one place you get a deeper understanding of its meaning and significance, and, by extension, the significance to be discovered in any location, anywhere.

And of course, as Spike Milligan remarked, everybody’s got to be somewhere.

Tell us about the workings you have performed as part of the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. Having spent most of your career at the keyboard, how important is that kind of live performance to you?

At the time of the performances, it felt like that what was what we were being instructed to do. I’ve always enjoyed performance within limits. It’s a very different experience from working at the keyboard, as you remark.

However, lately I’ve found myself turning down offers for live appearances and live performance. It just doesn’t seem to be the thing that I most need to focus on at present.

Finally, do you have any advice for fledgling magicians and artists reading this?

Yes. Remember that when I say that magic and art are equivalent, you should not construe that I am saying that magic is only art; that I’m in some way attempting to downplay magic by conflating it with something everyone believes is commonplace and possible.

What I am actually saying is that art is only ever magic, that all of the spectacular rewards said to be achievable by magic are attainable through art, and all of the nightmarish horrors and dangers reputed to be implicit in magic are similarly attendant upon the artist or the writer.

Approach your work with as much awe, compassion, intelligence and practical caution as you would bring to an encounter with a supposed angel, god or demon. Art can kill you or can drive you mad as certainly as any of the six dozen performers in the Goetia of Solomon and if you doubt me then consider all the crushed or suicided artists, poets and performers, easily as long a list as that containing Edward Kelly or Jack Whiteside Parsons.

Art and magic are perhaps the greatest human works and are an interface with the eternal. Take them seriously; take yourself seriously and remember that your art and magic are as big, as powerful, as dangerous and beautiful as you yourself are able to conceive of them as being.

Don’t pursue them in the hope of wealth, power, fame or notoriety, or as a style accessory, but for their own sake. This is the meaning of devotion and if properly applied it can transform you and the world that you exist in.

Oh, and find yourself a god or its equivalent or, better, let a god or its equivalent find you. I would suggest a god with good hair, although that may be merely a personal preference. Good luck.

You can buy the print version of the magazine featuring this interview in abridged form (hey, we only had so many pages!) here: Pagan Dawn No 196 Lammas 2015


The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984)

Produced for cult British comic 2000AD, Halo Jones was set in the 50th Century and followed the adventures of a young ‘everywoman’ who quits her boring life to travel the stars.

Its eponymous heroine was mould-breaking and the series was planned to run over nine story arcs, taking her from adolescence to old age. However, after three books a dispute flared up between Moore and publisher Fleetway over intellectual property rights and the series halted.

Watchmen (1986-87)

This classic, considered to be Moore’s finest work, is the only comic to win the Hugo award and the only graphic novel to be named in Time magazine’s list of 100 Best Novels.

Watchmen imagines what the world would have been like if costumed heroes had actually existed since the 1940s.

The narrative is multi-perspective and non-linear, and uses its very human characters  – and one superhuman – to examine notions of heroism and morality. The film adaptation by director Zack Snyder came out in 2009.

V for Vendetta (1982-89)

A dystopian thriller set in 1997 in which a lone anarchist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask fights to topple the fascist government controlling Britain.

A film version directed by James McTeigue was released in 2005 and the iconic mask has been adopted by political protestors around the globe.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999 to present)

The series features a team of fantastical characters from Victorian literature led by H Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain and featuring Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Wilhelmina Murray and HG Wells’ Invisible Man.

Their foe in the first outing is Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes and they most recently tackled a Harry Potter-inspired anti-Christ. The film version was made by Stephen Norrington in 2003 – and credited by Sean Connery, who played Quatermain, as the project that made him fall out of love with acting.

From Hell (1989-1996)

This series speculated on the identity and motives of Jack the Ripper and suggested the murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal the birth of an illegitimate child fathered by Prince Albert Victor. The film version starring Johnny Depp was released in 2001.

Promethea (1999-2005)

Set in the New York of 1999, the psychedelic story follows teenage student Sophie Bangs on her journey of esoteric discovery after she becomes the latest vessel for Promethea.

It ends with her bringing about the apocalypse – which doesn’t turn out to be a bad thing – and is considered to be Moore’s most personal work.

Images of Alan courtesy of Joe Brown. Artwork of Asmodeus and Glycon by Alan.