RORSCHACH'S FATHER: the lost tapes
"A quarter of a century ago, I interviewed Rorschach’s father..."
It must have been in 1987, when French editor Zenda ( now defunct ) published WATCHMEN in French with a great translation by Jean-Pierre Manchette, himself a writer and connoisseur of Noir. I had just finished my first novel but had not yet found a publisher. I was one of the editors of CHRONIQUES D’OUTRE-MONDE ( Chronicles from Outer-Worlds), a role playing game professional magazine written and put together by a gang of amateurs. I read WATCHMEN when it came out as a big softback edition in the UK and asked the French publisher for access to Alan Moore during a promotion tour in France. The interview lasted an hour and a half, as far as I recall, and was never published in France. I submitted it to PLAYBOY US who did not much care about a relatively «unknown» entity in the comic-book «genre», and finally published it in the UK three years later in a horror magazine who promptly sacked my friend Dave Hughes, the editor, and never paid me. (Fuck’em). I scoured the web and finally found the interview recently on ebay. Times have changed, but some things have not. It was a time when Thatcher was still in power, a time when AIDS was just rearing its ugly head, a time when Salman Rushdie had gone into hiding, a time when the Berlin Wall was still standing, a time when we did not have Internet access and barely had computers. This was 15 years before 9/11 and the War on Terror... Yet the wit and wisdom of Alan Moore still shines, for me, a quarter of a century later. Some of the things he told me, about politics, about power, about writing, about multi-dimensional characters, about integrity in the face of the apocalypse, still ring true for me. I hope you’ll feel the same.
Is there any one factor to which you attribute your success since WATCHMEN?
Alan Moore: If you'd asked me when l began WATCHMEN whether all this would have happened, I would've told you not to be so silly. But now I’ve had some time to think about it, I'm not so surprised. For every action there is an opposite action. There is a dynamic in society. Just as there is this Right Wing crackdown, there is an equally big reaction against it; even it it's only in people's heads; even if it's only people thinking, 'l don't like this way of living. There is something wrong with it.' Most people can't think it through — perhaps because the conclusions they would reach would be unpleasant ones. For instance, most people don't want to think about the environment, because if you think about it…
You have to change your life.
Alan Moore: Exactly. You have to, at least, put some real effort into working with environmental organisations and trying to do something about it. It's not comfortable. Most people would rather let somebody else do it. I mean, in forty vears the rain forests will be gone. If the rain forests are gone, we can't breathe. Simple as that. There's nothing that's more simple than that: no trees, no air. One of my children is eight. She said to me the other day, “I’ll only be forty-eight, won't I?' and I said. 'Yeah'. It's a pretty depressing thought. What a horrible thing to have to think about. I mean, we brought these children into the world and it might not have that much longer left. Nuclear reactors, for another thing. They can't be decommissioned because nobody knows how to do it. But they keep building them. We are going to have a Chernobyl every four or five years from now on. And more, because those reactors weren't built to last for twenty-five years in the first place; and they were built thirty years ago. One of those reactors is going to go up every few years. No-one likes to think about that. When the radiation's falling down from the sky, as long as they can't see it or taste it or smell it they'll pretend it's not there, because otherwise they'd have to do something about it. It's the same with the nuclear weapons industry. It's too big; too big and frightening for people.
In WATCHMEN, there's only one person who takes into account all these conflicting, extremely difficult-to-sleep-with ideas and does something about them. What do you think about them?. What do you think about him?
Alan Moore: Veidt? Well. He's the other side of the coin from Rorschach, a right winger who has the most integrity in some ways; Veidt is a liberal is a libéral and, in some ways, is the biggest monster. This was again perhaps trying to counter-balance my own natural prejudices- it would have been to easy to make Rorschach the villain and have this blond liberal superhero save the day. I was trying to use Veidt as an analogy: arrogant people with good intentions. There are lots of levels of analogy in WATCHMEN, but one of the levels that relate to Adrian Veidt is that we cue the reader in on the verv first page, where Rorschach mentions President Truman and later on in Chapter Four where we have a lot of talk about Hiroshima in the text feature at the end of the Rorschach issue, where Rorschach says that he thinks Truman was right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima becase more people would have died if he hadn't. Veidt's argument is an old argument, you can see. That it is all right to commit an atrocity if the end justifies the means. The only difference with Adrian Veidt is that he didn’t do it in some far-off country full of yellow people; he did it in the middle of New York. That’s why Americans were so shocked by the ending, because it’s unthinkable. All right, maybe some people do have to die to make the world safe, but not Americans! That’s too great a price. Yellow people, yeah; black people, sure; brown people, okay; West Europeans if we must. But not Americans; Americans' blood is worth too much. Wog blood is comparatively worthless. Hundreds of wogs can get killed and it doesn't add up to one drop of American blood. If one American tourist gets killed, they firebomb Tripoli. It's that way of thinking. So by using Adrian Veidt as, you know, almost a model Caesar. An industrial Caesar rather than a military one, but a modern Caesar nonetheless and, like all Caesars he thinks he knovvs what's best for the world. And if you look at his motives, he's got a point, his argument is logical; he's a credible character. But the key to his personality is his arrogance, his egotism — the belief that he is right; that his is the only solution.
He says to Dr Manhattan, That was the only way.'
Alan Moore: That was the only doubt in the entire story. When he says, “I did the right thing, didn't I?” That's the only moment where, just for a second, you see something in his eyes where he's thinking. “Christ what have I done?” That's his only human moment. All of the characters towards the end have their own human moment. Rorschach's is when he starts crying. The Comedian, when he starts crying, and when he says, “I don't get the joke. I don't understand it. It's not funny any more.” And when, for a moment, the enormity of what Veidt has done suddenly cornes home to him. Veidt has his doubts. And of course, at the end of the story, it's all left in doubt. Maybe it was all a massive sacrifice for nothing.
As a writer you give your various characters beliefs and motives even if you don't share them yourself. But, in WATCHMEN, the Rorschach character, who is far more right wing in his beliefs than Margaret Thatcher, has a certain dignity, courage and even heroism. Why did you do that?
Alan Moore: It is something that probably started with V FOR VENDETTA, where you have an ultra-right-wing fascist state in the future, one very romantic character against them. The obvious way to portray fascists is as cartoon Nazis with monocles, Heidelberg University duelling scars, show them torturing lots of children and so on, so that everyone is sure that they are the bad guys. Now that seems wrong to me. The Nazis didn't come from Mars, they weren't monsters such as the world had never seen; they were street sweepers and factory hands and bakers and butchers. But when someone in uniform told them to, they went out and killed six million human beings. And the same would have happened in England and France and any nation in the world, if the historical circumstances had come together and produced a charismatic enough leader and a credible enough threat.
And a bad economy.
Alan Moore: Right. The same mechanisms are used over and over again. When England had a bad economy, we allowed the Falklands War to happen to take our minds off it. Iran has got a bad economy; the Iranian revolution is going down the toilet. So Salman Rushdie is the threat from outside. These people are not terribly imaginative; they only know one trick and they've been doing it for centuries and been getting away with it. They're worried now because the rules are starting to change now. It's not so easy to keep things secret any more, or to keep them under control. There are too many vectors; it's all getting a bit too chaotic; there are too many unpredictable elements entering the thing. Now, with V FOR VENDETTA what I tried to do was make the fascists real human beings. Some of them are unlikeable, some are likable; they are all credible. In one issue of V we put side-by-side V's argument for anarchy and one of the lead fascist's arguments for fascism. V's is the more attractive and romantic; the fascist argument makes the most sense, at least on the surface. I wanted people to really think about this. I didn't want to give one person a black hat and one person a white hat. It's obvious where my prejudices lie, but I wouldn't be a very good writer if everything in my writing reflected my prejudice. l'm very much against the baby bird school of moralising, where you have all of your audience with their beaks open and you feed them predigested morals, and they chew them up without any sort of discernment whatsoever. What I would rather do is give people moral problems, Yes, Rorscharch is Ioathsome, but he has integrity. He is obviously psychotic, but in some ways his worldview is very difficult to argue against. It's not the only worldview that we present in WATCHMEN but it's credible, believable. It's this thing of trying to stop people thinking in terms of heroes and villains, because I think those are dangerous concepts. Like I say, the Nazis weren't villains but ordinary human beings who did terrible things. Heroes are usually people who, if you happened to be on the opposite side of any battle, would be famous monsters. It is all totally subjective. There aren't any pure heroes; there aren't any pure villains; there's just people. But people like there to be heroes and villains, because if we can say “That person is a monster”, it makes us feel better or not so bad. Or it makes it not our responsibility. Mrs Thatcher isn't a monster, sh’es just a fairly nondescript intellect, but she's a greedy and an ambitious woman. It's too bad that she's Prime Minister. I mean, if she'd have stayed in her greengrocery business, probably not many peuple would have shopped there an awful lot, but it wouldn't have done anv great harm. But a lot of the left wing in Britain like to portray Mrs Thatcher as a monster.
Do you think there’s another way of thinking to Comrade Veidt’s then?
Alan Moore: Yes. One thing I’m very concerned with at the moment — partly because its a phenomenon that I must take some of the blame for - is “apocalyptic thinking'. We live in an age where there are two basic attitudes concerning the future. Some people think that the future will be exactly the same as today, but with smaller radios and bigger cars. Other people think that there isn't going to be a future, just a mushroom cloud. So, in either instance, on one hand, if the future's the same as today, why prepare for it? And on the other, if there's no future, why prépare for one? There is nobody trying to imagine a future whereby we might be able to survive physically and psychologically and, yes, apocalyptic fiction is in some ways part of the problem. When I was writing that stuff I was trying to alert people lo the danger; that we might have an apocalypse, so let's stop it before it's too late. But although that seemed to me the best thing to do at that time, I think now we have to go beyond that, because everybody — at least, in their guts — is aware that we might have an apocalypse. They all fear it, are paralysed by it; they will not imagine a future and so they'll come up with apocalyptic films that are optimistic: MAD MAX says there will be a future and that human values will still be important after the bomb, even if those values are being expounded by mutants riding across the valley in their dune biggies with their masks on. There'll still be human values. But of course, after a nuclear war there wouldn't be any human values. There'd be cockroach values; there might be rat values; but no human values. It's optimistic to try and pretend that we are imagining as grim a future as possible. We're not. We're trying to comfort ourselves by saying that the spirit of independence and adventure will still exist after the bomb, that it'll be something like the pioneering davs. l've heard assholes like Robert Heinlein say that, in some ways, the bomb would be a good idea because it would make people tough again, that it would be a return to the pioneering spirit of the Old West. Well, the Old West wasn't radioactive. You could grow things in the Old West. And this is a Science Fiction writer who should, frankly, know better.
What we have to do is try and imagine that if the worst doesn’t happen and we don't destroy ourselves, what are we going to do? Where are the ideas? Around 1875, somebody working in the American Patent Office resigned. They said, “What's the point? Why go on? We've invented everything." In Victorian England this was even more so. They said, "We know everything there is to know about physics: we know that there is only one energy source in the universe and that's the Sun; we know Radium can't possibly exist, because only the Sun creates energy; We know that the universe was started 800 years ago — certainly no more than that — and it's slowly winding down, so in another ten thousand years or so the Sun will go out and we'll all die " We thought we knew everything, that we'd reached the very pinnacle of civilisation. We knew that the ether existed, and that explained everything. What we'd done was excluded everything we didn't understand, so we had a very small universe which we understood perfectly.
And, of course, five or six years later, someone discovered that the ether didn't exist at all, and all the scientists thought, “We were wrong about the ether, and that means that all the things we thought were impossible are probably possible, and in tact we don't know what's going to happen in the future. We thought it was all going to be so predictable, with no surprises for the next million years or so, but in fact we don't really know what's going to happen tomorrow… And then you get the collapse of the Empire. We went into a state of psychological shock, because we realised that there was going to be a future after all; that it was going to be different. But we didn't know how to deal with it. And whereas previously we had been able to see ourselves as being at the very pinnacle of Man's evolution and that from thereon nothing could be improved, we suddenly realised that our entire worldview was wrong, and that history was just going to keep on rolling. And if we didn't roll with it, we'd get left behind. Which we did.
And I can see a lot of parallels: there's a lot of that sort of thinking going on now.