Two Of The Greatest Comic Book Writers Have Been In An Occult War For 25 Years
Both men are British; both are only a few years apart in age. Both present themselves as rebels of a sort. Both are passionately dedicated to a personal practice of the occult, and their occult writing has been taken seriously and influenced the scene.
But here’s the kicker: Moore and Morrison freaking despise each other. So much so that it’s actually bled into their work. Some of the greatest comics of the last 25 years have been a direct product of Moore and Morrison’s wizard-fight.
First, some background: both men started out writing comics in the 1970s, and became famous in the 1980s (internationally, Moore became famous a few years earlier than Morrison).
Alan Moore is probably most famous for V for Vendetta, From Hell, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a little miniseries called “Watchmen” that changed comics forever.
Morrison wrote Animal Man, and Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles. He was the driving force behind the ‘vertigo’ line of DC comics which focused on weird fiction with occult/horror overtones, which had a huge influence on subsequent movies and TV.
His work was groundbreaking, but he was also responsible for incredibly significant work on mainstream comics like the X-Men, the Justice League, Superman and Batman, radically renovating each of those titles and producing some of their most memorable stories of recent years.
Moore did mainstream superhero comics too: in the 1980s his writing on Green Lantern had a significant influence on that character, he turned Swamp Thing from a failing monster-comic into a major character, invented John Constantine, wrote “The Killing Joke” for Batman and a couple of Superman stories that were extremely memorable. But he had a falling out with DC comics over royalties for “Watchmen” and in opposition to a plan to put ratings systems in their comics; after that he quit working for the big mainstream comic companies and never looked back.
By the early 90s, it was already obvious Moore had issues with Morrison. He claimed to have helped give Morrison a leg up in his career (Morrison later pointed out he was making comics, though much less famous ones, before Moore had become known at all), and that Morrison in return just ripped-off all of Moore’s work.
Morrison, on the other hand, claimed that Moore’s own work was derivative of a 1977 novel called Superfolks, and that “Watchmen” was not as great as everyone thought, and that Moore wants to take credit for everything great in comics while slagging anyone he sees as competition.
Moore has continued to insinuate throughout the years that Morrison has kept ripping off his ideas, once notably saying, “I’ve read Morrison’s work twice: first when I wrote it, then when he wrote it.”
Even the question of which one of them is the more “occult” comic book guy has been a bone of contention. Moore’s coming out as a magician was better known and got way more press, and he did that in 1993. On the other hand, Morrison was talking publicly about being involved in Chaos Magick a few years earlier than that, and Morrison has claimed that Moore only decided to come out because Morrison was already public about it.
It’s not as if either of them were really secretive about it. Moore’s magical ideas were already mostly evident in his early work, and Morrison’s pre-1993 work was already highly esoteric. Moore’s V for Vendetta openly espoused gnostic concepts and Aleister Crowley’s magical philosophy.
Magically, the two believe in very different things. Neither of them are exactly orthodox, but Moore is a more traditionalist kind of wizard. He is an admirer of Aleister Crowley’s “Thelemic” magick, and the philosophy in his Book of the Law. He appreciates the value of magick as a kind of art form, and in turn, considers art to be a kind of magick.
Grant Morrison is from the school of “chaos magick”, who practice magick that is less worried about rules and ritual and more about trying to get things done. Magick can be done from just about anything, as long as you have the right intention. Chaos magicians tend to like mixing up elements from a whole variety of different cultures and history, to reinvent it all to fit whatever they’re in the mood for, and have no problem with doing magick for personal gain (or to change the world) rather than just for human transcendence.
Moore’s very loud statement of declaring himself a Magician in public may just have been a factor in motivating Morrison to go whole-hog with the ‘occult comic book’ thing, when he started on “The Invisibles” in 1994.
“The Invisibles” is a 1500 page (59 issue) masterpiece of Occult Literature, written in comic book form. Its winding plotline tells a single long story (with various sub-plots) about a group of occult rebels using magick to try to liberate mankind, opposed by a cabal of black magicians in positions of power and authority trying to use sorcery to control and oppress humanity. It is, simply put, one of the greatest comic series of all time.
According to Morrison, if you want to take him at his word and not just assume it’s a chaos-magician metaphor, he was told parts of the story by space aliens when he was abducted by them in Kathmandu. The entire comic was intentionally designed to function as a kind of spell’, meant to create powerful changes in consciousness in whoever reads it. It also had weird effects on Morrison’s own life.
His character “King Mob” was meant to be based on Morrison’s ideal version of himself as an occult rebel-hero; Morrison started to find that when he wrote bad things happening to King Mob, bad things happened to himself. When King Mob nearly died from magical bacteria in one of the comic’s issues, Morrison himself caught a life-threatening infection. Later, King Mob was shot and almost killed, and Morrison himself had to be hospitalized for blood poisoning. After that, Morrison started writing King Mob as having great things happening to him, and Morrison started to have unexpected fame and fortune of his own.
While “The Invisibles” hasn’t got its own movie or TV series yet (it’s probably too weird and too hard to make), it was enormously influential on a ton of sci-fi and fantasy writers, as well as filmmakers. In particular, the creators of The Matrix were hugely influenced by “The Invisibles.”
So here’s where we get to the part that most articles on the Moore/Morrison feud have missed. I’m a comics reader but probably not expert enough to really detail the history or quality of work other than at the ‘fan’ level. But I am an expert on occultism. And I can say this: the war between Moore and Morrison isn’t just a “writers’ fight”, it’s a “wizards’ feud.” It is two very different views on magick using comics as a medium to fire salvos at each other.
A few years after Morrison started on “The Invisibles,” Alan Moore came out with “Promethea” – a 32-issue comic about a young woman who becomes the latest host for the spirit of an ancient superpowerful demigoddess of the imagination. Incarnating in the modern world, she takes on the role of a wonder-woman-style Super-heroine.
Like “The Invisibles,” “Promethea” is full of occult symbolism and esoteric philosophical ideas. It’s lavishly beautiful and brilliantly written. Just as The Invisibles served as a showcase for Morrison’s own ideas about chaos-magick, buddhism, conspiracy theories, psychedelia, UFO-fanaticism, esoteric psychology, punk politics and apocalypticism; Promethea became a showcase for Moore’s ideas about Magick, Thelema, the Qabalah, gnosticism, art-as-magick, imagination-as-reality, transcending the shallowness of the modern world, and apocalypticism.
Yes, both comics end with the ‘end of the world’. But the way these end up is very different from each other, and reflect the different views of the two magicians. In the Invisibles, the apocalypse is a humanity-transcending singularity. In “Promethea,” it is a divine union which makes us all more totally human than ever. This difference, like almost all the content in both comics, serve to highlight how Moore and Morrison have very different ideas about occult philosophy:
Morrison on magick:
Moore on magick:
I could have picked some other quote from Moore, like his manifesto about how magick should be stripped of its nostalgia or its introverted edginess and be treated as an expression of art, and how learning how to use words is what magick is all about (that you cast a spell in the same sense as ‘spelling’ a word). But the quote above in some ways seems more appropriate. Morrison wants to be precise and coherent, and he wants to present an image of himself in everything he does; he’s a kind of preacher for magick. Moore doesn’t give a crap what you think of him, and he just wants to drop hints of wisdom at you, and then you need to figure the rest out yourself.
Moore seemed to be mocking Morrison’s style of chaos magick in “Promethea,” basically calling it wankery. In one scene in the comic, Moore has a character point out that in the 1920s, (ritual) magick was all about “turbans, tuxedos and tarts in tiaras,” but now modern (chaos) magick is all about “sigils, stubble, and self abuse.”
In response, Morrison called Moore’s Promethea “elitist.” He seems to want magick to be both accessible to everyone, and revolutionary at the same time.
As a wizard myself, I’d say that both comics are absolute masterpieces of modern occult literature. “Promethea” probably includes the greatest explanation ever made of the “Tree of Life” – the roadmap of traditional western magick. It’s glorious. “The Invisibles” is probably the most complete compendium of occult ideas of the modern age. That’s how they’re different: “Promethea” shows you magick, teaches you why it’s important, and invites you to make your own humanity magical. “The Invisibles” doesn’t give you a choice: just reading it changes you, it blows your mind like it was a supernatural drug. It’s not an instruction; it’s an experience.
But it’s too easy to try to write the conflict off by painting Moore as some kind of grumpy old traditionalist, and Morrison as the bold in-your-face counter-culture rebel.
Remember, it was Moore who argued his way out of mainstream comics forever. On the other hand, Morrison plays the rebel but has become an icon of Mainstream Comics (though anyone reasonable would agree he’s transformed that mainstream and helped enormously to raise the quality of mainstream comics writing).
Morrison even got an MBE from the Queen, which Moore saw as the ultimate proof of Morrison’s fake rebel act being exposed as conformity. For it, he called Morrison a “Tory” (which, from Moore, is like the dirtiest word imaginable).
Morrison once claimed that Moore only had one “Watchmen”, while he does “one Watchmen a week”; which frankly is complete bullcrap. And you could laugh at Morrison’s arrogance for saying something like that, except that then he went on to launch a magical attack directly at Watchmen just to prove his point, with his comic “Pax Americana.”
“Watchmen” had started out as an idea Moore had using a certain group of DC-owned characters (Captain Atom, Peacemaker, The Question, Nightshade, the Blue Beetle, Thunderbolt) which DC wasn’t really using. Luckily for us all, DC didn’t let him use them, so he reinvented them as the Watchmen characters (Dr.Manhattan, Comedian, Rorschach, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Ozymandias) and created a masterpiece.
But in “Pax Americana,” Morrison reversed the situation. First, he did get to use the DC characters; but he wrote them in a style that imitated (almost but not quite to the point of mockery) the style of Moore’s “Watchmen” characters. Then he makes a complete story in just one issue, that is just as much a work of genius as Moore’s 12 issues of “Watchmen.” This too is a magical technique, once again, Morrison has turned a comic book into a spell. “Pax Americana” itself even deals with the nature of time, and the keys to the universe in the number 8; he even magically over-rides “Watchmen”’s base-3 (9 panel) format with a base-4 (8 or 16 panel) format. It’s like a wizard crafting a more powerful magical square-talisman than his rival.
The first page of the story actually shows you the ending of it, and you can read “Pax Americana” from front to back, back to front, or starting from anywhere in the middle. By playing with time in this way, and using the older characters Moore’s “Watchmen” was based on, Morrison’s comic-spell is essentially trying to retroactively change history, and to neuter Moore’s claim that he was there first. “Pax Americana” isn’t just an amazing comic – it’s an amazing spell.
For his part Moore hasn’t responded to this latest volley quite yet, having been too busy working on his decade-long novel project Jerusalem, which he finally published last year. It’s one of the ten longest novels of the English language, and got some pretty good reviews. But I’m guessing comics will pull him back in again, and Alan Moore’s magical duel with Grant Morrison won’t be over until one of the two is dead. Maybe not even then.