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The Absolute League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. I (Review)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is, like most works from writer Alan Moore, a strange beast. Essentially a pulp comic book narrative banding together several iconic fictional characters from Victorian fiction (Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin and Edward Jekyll form the main cast), the series is much more than that. Cleverly and insidious cross-referencing and weaving its way through a slew of existing fictional and non-fictional elements. I spent as much time googling a rake of obscure and semi-obscure names and events and locations, all tying back to the great authors at the turn of the last century. How ironic that a pulpy Victorian tale would be perhaps the first classic of the internet age.

Nothing to Hyde...

Alan Moore is a strange man. He’s a wizard, you know. He’s the visionary mind who gave us Watchmen and V for Vendetta, as well as some of the best work in mainstream comics – pushing the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be done in the medium. His early works heavily shaped the medium (albeit unintentionally). Watchmen led to the era of dark comics, which is – Moore would argue – a fundamental misreading of his work. Since then, he’s been focused on bringing the entertainment back to the medium, rather than darkness for its own sake. Of course, that hasn’t stopped him from playing with new ideas and pushing certain “out there” ideas. So that’s the context of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – it’s a conventional, old-fashioned comic book adventure… but it’s not really.

The central narrative follows the conscription of the League, a body tasked by British Intelligence with protecting the world. Together this not-so-merry band of misfits find themselves waging a secret war on “the Doctor”, a mysterious oriental figure who bears more than a passing resemblance to Fu Manchu, as he attempts to harness the power of flight for his own nefarious purpose. However, there is more afoot than meets the eye.

Moriarty's fall from grace...

Moore has crafted a wonderful fictional world. Okay, “crafted” is the wrong word. More like “integrated”. The core concept of the series is that all fiction coexists (or, in this case, coexisted). Yes, all of it. If you have ever wondered, for example, what Mycroft Holmes did after his more famous brother faked his death, this series is for you. The next volume would explain, for example, what Mina Harker and the members of the League were up to during H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. It’s a very fun high concept, and Moore runs with it.

The key concept is one very familiar to comic book fans, the gigantic crisis crossover. I remember reading that Moor originally imagined the team as a sort of “proto-Justice League” and, in a way, it’s a fitting description. Moore takes a modern notion and backports it beautifully. Moore, who claims to have tired of the superhero, spends a great deal of time illustrating how inherently derivative these characters are – the Hyde we are presented with is but the distant ancestor of the Incredible Hulk; the Invisible Man is the progenitor of Sue Storm. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Moore wants you to know it anyway. Of course, Moore steadfastly refuses to modernise other concepts. These characters are products of their time, sharing many of the less-than-politically-correct attitudes of the time. Misogyny and racism bubble beneath the surface here, in a way that will likely make more than a few readers (this one included) slightly uncomfortable. But it’s all part of what Moore is doing.

Finding Nemo...

Of course, it wouldn’t be Moore if he didn’t throw a bit more fuel for thought into his work. There’s a strong feminist undercurrent running through the story, from the choice of Mina Harker (perhaps the great victim of Victorian fiction, here becoming empowered by Moore) as the leader of this ragtag bunch of “heroes” (in inverted commas) to suggestions about various characters’ sexuality. Hell, Mina herself is defined by her unnatural “manly ilk”. The male members of the ensemble are mostly useless – note Quartermain’s panic when confronted by the Invisible Man, barely able to finish the statement, “Somebody do… something”, before Mina had taken the matter in hand and covered the fellow in paint. Or Quartermain’s none-to-subtly concealled elephant gun, which can only fire one shot at a time, carried with him while undercover. At one point, Mina laments having to serve as the brains of the operation, observing, “Rather, it is you men who, typically, are not doing any thinking at all.”

Victorian London, despite the leadership of the good Queen Vic, is a man’s world. And what a world they have crafted. “Why are men so obsessed with mechanisms which further nothing but destruction?” Mina asks rhetorically at one point.

Fans of Victorian fiction will find themselves right at Holmes...

There’s also a metafictional joy in the story. At one point, the villain observes that, “We tread the very borders of mythology”, perhaps referencing the role that these iconic pulp heroes have in the popular lexicon. After all, though Moore peppers the work with tiny references to obscure facets of the time’s popular culture, most of us recognise (at least in name) the character he is using. The same character observes that “Our charades take on a life of their own.” Hell, the story intentionally catches most of the characters in their twilight. Quartermain is dead. Mina is divorced. Sherlock Holmes has faked his death (indeed, “the great detective’s death” casts a large shadow over the story). It’s perhaps no coincidence that the story is set at this point in their fictional lives while being written at a point when perhaps their literary influence is starting to slowly fade. When asked why he’s here, Nemo confesses, “I’m here because I wanted another adventure.” It’s hard not to sense that Alan Moore also wanted him to have another adventure.

And, as usual, given the author, there’s more than a hint of deconstruction to be found in the work. Take, for instance, the introduction of Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man, presented as the cause of any number of “immaculate conceptions” at a school in London. There are other hints and ideas thrown around about various characters, from Quartermain’s drug addiction to Nemo’s racism (itself, of course, reflected by the racism of other cast members to him) or even Hyde’s murderous past times. All of these are glossed over in this volume (and nearly all of them come up again, in the second), but Moore makes sure we are at least aware of them. The vast majority of his cast are “broken”, and not heroes in the slightest, a recognition of the fact that pop culture memory tends to heavily simplify what characters and concepts it sees fit to preserve. Moore offers us the fact that their heroic actions here are guided mainly by the promise of amnesty for past crimes, but also by their own hunger for adventure – neither really laudable aims, to be honest. Of course, in the heat of the action, we are liable to forget this, but Moore ensures that it’s always ticking away in the background.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea... Actually, Just One...

There’s also a hint of Moore’s common themes at play here. He has always been fond of Orwell, particular the notion of the state (or similar powerful individuals) constructing their own enemies. It played into V For Vendetta, Watchmen and it’s articulated here. It’s a bit more pointed in this case, as – even at its most deadly – the threat is still a fiction. As is, Moore would suggest, the notion of British intelligence. But enough on that.

Of course, it’s not all so deep. Some of it is just fun. There’s a wonderful self-consciously cheesy style which ties together most of the narrative. My personal favourite item is the little text box at the end of each section which hinted to the reader what was in store in the edition, complete with “old timey”style. Some of the dialogue is wonderfully hardboiled and the selection of extras at the end features a whole manner of wonderfully lowbrow entertainments, like a paint-by-numbers Dorian Grey or a maze or two. There’s a sense of fun back here, and a joy in putting it all together. Some of this doesn’t sit particularly comfortably with the deconstructive nature hinted at by the work, but mostly it’s a very well put together collection.

It's a blast...

The artwork is lovely and self-consciously designed to call the mind the era in which the book is set. Most of the panels look like etchings, with a very “Victorian” construction of the characters and forms and even shadows. Long necks and thin heads are the order of the day. It looks quite lovely, particularly given how carefully it’s shaded and coloured. I can’t imagine it was easy to keep up with Moore, but Kevin O’Neill somehow manages.

I had the pleasure of reading this in an oversized hardcover edition sponged (borrowed) from my better half. Included were all the special features originally included in the book, but also a separate book housing the scripts for the collection. If you needed to doubt the amount of care and research put into the work, then this will surely set you straight. It helps that Moore has a wonderful writing style even distinct from his storytelling skill (though this is also evidenced from the Allan Quartermain story included in the supplemental story materials). There’s a cute afterword from his artist, but there’s no real insight into the volume offered. No discussion of its merits or methods or even the meaning of it all. Those familiar with Moore won’t be surprised he wasn’t involved in its production. In a way, it’s quite right too. There’s such a stew of ideas here that one is best suited to make what they will of it themselves.

I can get on board with this...

It’s a great book, and a fantastic story. Don’t let the lacklustre film adaptation turn you off. Hell, don’t even let the medium turn you off. I had the pleasure to read both this and the succeeding volume in a single sitting, and the two complement each other. I do, however, have a softer spot for this initial arc. It’s not as relentlessly and depressingly dark as the one that follows, nor is it as excessive. Instead, it’s capable of being fun and entertaining while hinting at the darkness underpinning these sorts of stories – steeped, as they are, in repressed sexual urges and set amid British colonialism. For anyone familiar with English literature at the end of the 19th century, this is a must read. For anyone else, such as myself, it’s a jolly good time.

Check out our reviews of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:

Those looking for annotations could do a lot worse than Jess Nevin’s collections of annotations for the series, available here. Alternatively, for those looking to see if they’ve correctly spotted a reference in the book, Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list of characters appearing (including volume, issue and page number) here. Both resources, though fantastic, contain spoilers. You have been warned.

2 Responses

  1. Moore doesn’t write often, but when he does it really makes for something to read.

    • Yep. Though sometimes I worry he ventures over into “indulgent” (high brow erotica, anyone?), but he is one of my favourite writers (and not just in the medium of comics).

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