I take it as a given that one good demonstration of intelligence is behavioural flexibility, which enables us to correct what we do when we fail to achieve what we want. You go to the fridge to get some milk. There’s none there. So you go to the shop and get another carton. That’s one cornerstone of a functional mind. The other is an ability to understand a situation from another’s point of view, also called empathy. You need to say something to a friend, but when you meet up sense they’re not in a good mood, and what counts is just doing whatever feels right and helps them relax.
Put flexibility and empathy together and you have the basis of our ability to construct a mental world in which we can operate with some degree of responsiveness to the desires of others. One that allows learning and growth to take place, since you have the ability to adjust your internal map of how things are in line with the feedback the world gives you.
Which makes it all the more surprising that – on the basis of that uncontroversial view of intelligence – Alan Moore should demonstrate such a lack of it in a very long interview in which he doesn’t once concede the possibility that he might conceivably be at fault in his stance on sexual violence across the decades of his work, the potential racial issues involved in a gollywog character, and – well – pretty much anything else where some people are making one claim and Alan wants to hold on to the one he prefers.
What emerges instead is a sense of a man who is comfortable at weaving words to justify himself at every turn, and fails to pay any real attention to his critics because he rates his own account of what he’s out to achieve more than the responses others have to what he does. While claiming that a lack of empathy for working class people in the work of other writers puts him off their work, he fails to acknowledge that women may have valid things to say about the depiction of female characters in his comics.
As for the gollywog business, it makes for painful reading. The character in question turns up in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – the comic which a female friend was unable to read because of its depiction of sexual violence. Moore thinks he defuses the potentially racist aspects of the gollywog by making it an alien from a dark matter universe. Dark = black, see? Well, that’s alright then.
For what it’s worth, I have no issue with a white creator wanting to approach areas of racial sensitivity. But it takes a bit more thought to tread carefully in such territory, such as was done in the 1984 film The Brother From Another Planet, written and directed by John Sayles, and featuring a black alien whose experience in New York becomes a capsule version of immigrant experience in America.
Just claiming that what you’ve done is politically OK because you’re a well-known radical who thinks a lot about these things doesn’t cut it. Especially when that same great brain spends just as much time devoting its attention to bizarre sexualised violence in the H.P. Lovecraft riff Neonomicon. Thing being, comics is famously a visual medium, and that unavoidably leads us into the realm of semiotics. Which essentially means that when you start using imagery on a page, like it or not you’re putting things there that people will look at according to what they bring to the page themselves, and not what the author may have in mind. So when you have a gollywog character, say, people are less likely to look at it and think ‘Ah, clearly a being from a dark matter universe’ than ‘What is this massively insensitive image doing in my comic?’.
But hey, who am I? I’m just another joe schmo on the internet, and Alan Moore doesn’t have much time for that either. And he’s not going to be doing many more interviews anyway, because people do keep getting him wrong about these things that he puts a lot of thought and attention into and is therefore right about.
One good sign of stupidity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. And if you haven’t got the flexibility to adapt and learn from what others are saying, maybe it’s time to retreat to that world inside your head where everything you say and do is just fine, because there’s nobody there to contradict you.
I’ll continue to treasure Alan Moore’s work. Some of it…