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

I don’t think it’s really fair to split up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen into two separate volumes. I’d argue that they are instead two halves of the same tale. It’s to the credit of this second storyline that it doesn’t feel like a sequel to the original – it feels like the second half of a circle, closing it out.

Out of this world!

While the original storyline – pitting the League against a Fu Manchu pastiche – was not a direct adaptation or did not run parallel to any particular narrative (instead drawing heavily from Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, amongst others), this volume runs in tandem with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, following a Martian invasion of Earth (specifically the United Kingdom). Moore tells the story as a sort of “untold secret history” of the invasion, crafting the assumption that Wells had somehow drafted a sanitised version of events for his own book. Those astute readers out there who might observe that this provides amble room for a subversion of the book’s rather deus ex machina ending would be correct.

The change in style seems an all-round good idea from Moore. The arc never feels too much like “more of the same” or a safe retread of what we’ve already seen. It’s proof that this old dog has new tricks. Moore’s version of the story remains true in theme and spirit to the original crafted by Wells. One must note – with the exception of a massively cross-referenced introduction on the surface of Mars drawing in everything from the work of Burroughs to the writings of C.S. Lewis – that Moore’s references here are a lot narrower (though still present for eagle-eyed readers), and I found myself doing a lot less impromptu on-line research.

As the world burns...

The other merit of this approach is that it allows Moore a lot more room for characterisation. At some point over the two volumes (and it’s a sign of Moore’s mastery that I’m not sure where), he manages to make these iconic characters his own. Here in particular we get more of insight into how certain characters work (not least of which Mr. Hyde, who fully takes over the body he shares with Jekyll upon the arrival of the Martians). We see them at their best here, and we see them at their worst. Be it Hawley Griffin’s actions in the face of an insurmountable threat or Quartermain’s nobility in offering to hold off some attackers for as long as his frail old body will allow. Particularly insightful is Moore’s observations about how Hyde has gotten larger over time, while Jekyll has grown even smaller and weaker.

It’s been widely observed that Wells crafted War of the Worlds in the style of many a science fiction epic – it is but an allegory for world affairs. The Martians are the British, arriving and subjugating the native people, laying waste as they go with their superior and incomprehensible technology. Moore makes the connection explicit, having Quartermain reflect on the ill-fated British intervention with the Mahdi uprising. There’s more afoot than that, though.

Get Carter (of Mars)...

In raising the stakes so dramatically between the two volumes, Moore gets to add some real shading to his world. Those uncomfortable with Moore’s deconstructions in the original volume (exploring the racism and misogyny of the time) are likely to be truly shocked here. The corruption of Victorian Britain, hinted at earlier, is laid bare. This is a nation that regards the amoral research of Dr. Morneau as “merely an eccentric hobby we can tolerate”. One could be forgiven for questioning if the nation deserves saving, let alone if it should be put above (as Captain Nemo suggests) the innocent lives of its citizens.

And under such pressure Moore finally gets to completely break down his characters. I noted in my earlier review that he hinted at the darker aspects of their nature, but here he lays their souls to bear. What kinds of people are these, when push comes to shove? Can we, a modern audience, truly comprehend these characters in a time so long ago? Ironically, it’s with the violence and the deceit that we know them best, because these are the things that have not changed – they remain universal. The faults outlined before are brought to the fore. Witness Hyde (complete in evening wear) punish a traitor in a brutal fashion, for example. Or a chilling moment where Nemo considers blowing up a bridge full of people. “It’s hardly a major strategic loss,” he observes. “They are only…” “Human?” Hyde suggests. “English,” Nemo clarifies.

Peace in a Tripod?

In the last volume, he played with gender, but here it’s all about sexuality, the logical conclusion of that piece of thought. Be it the sexual frustration shared by the lead characters and those bizarre creations of Morneau (who resemble everything from Wind in the Willows characters to Rupert the Bear, for added nightmare fuel) or the suggestion that it was Jekyll’s shame over his own sexuality that got him into this “shared body” situation, Moore seems intent on hammering home the repression of the time. It’s decidedly uncomfortable (indeed, a lot of the collection is), but it’s certainly effective. I almost felt a need to take a shower after finishing the book, which would probably make the writer smile more than a little.

As a little side note, there’s a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” reference to Michael Kane in the opening chapter. Kane was a 1960s physicist who ended up on ancient Mars in the works of Michael Moorcock. As well as serving as a handy illustration of the juxtaposition of new and old that Moore loves (our modern perspective against old attitudes – while also illustrating how ahead of the times the original works were: when a soldier declares they will halt the invasion by Monday morning, we think of the spectre of the First World War, not of similar sentiments from Wells’ text), it’s also a rather wonderful shoutout to Moorcock, who is famous for crafting a whole universe out of all his writings. Indeed, the notion of tying multiple distinct fictional stories together as part of a shared universe is known as The Moorcock Effect over on the wonderful TV Tropes. In fact, the whole League of Extraordinary Gentlemenis a similar idea – all shared universes coexisting, so it’s nice to see the reference (and not the only one, I’m sure).

Nothing to Hyde...

As with the previous edition, the artwork is fantastic. There seems to be a lot more colour on display here (which arguably showcases the art even more), which is in sharp contrast to the general tone of the story. The artwork again perfectly matches the era, calling to mind etchings with smooth lines and shadows.

The “special features” collected here are again intended to call to mind the wacky fun of times past – an assortment of activities for the whole family, filtered through an amusingly politically incorrect lens. However, there’s more than a bit of mood dissonance here. If it seemed but uncomfortable combining this sort of “off-kilter” “just for kids” type of entertainment with the dark undertones of Volume I, here there’s a serious case of mood whiplash. It’s undoubtedly intentional, but it can’t help but feel… uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant. Of course, it’s meant to make the reader feel uncomfortable, so I can’t really hold that against it.

Are they dealing with a threat completely out of their league?

Also thrown in for the completist are the scripts, which are pretty awesome of themselves. I can understand why Moore is so angry with DC (though the Warner Brothers film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen seems a strange breaking point, terrible as it was), but they certainly know how to take care of his work (probably because it makes them metric tonnes of money). It’s a shame that the third part of the “trilogy” (League of Gentlemen: Century, possibly the highest-profile comic with an annual release schedule) will not get the same deluxe treatment (in fact, the way that The Black Dossier was released – as the French say, sans extras (even those promised) was a bit of a joke).

The collection is wonderful. It’s stunningly well-written piece of pulp entertainment. Although my preference leans narrowly towards the original (though I have only read Moore’s first two books in the series), that’s perhaps a personal matter – I just find this collection relentlessly bleak and depressing, much of the wonderful wit and joy overwhelmed by the sheer darkness occurring. Still, it is a very rewarding read, and a fitting conclusion to this chapter of Moore’s saga.

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.

8 Responses

  1. I gotta check this out… on a sidenote, since I can’t seperate Morrison and Moore, have you checked out the new THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE series>

    • That series made the whole spectacle of finally “killing” Wayne worth it.

      • I’m still not sold on the idea. I’m ticked enough that they kill off characters they know they will eventually bring back (like Hal Jordan), but killing a huge character you plan to bring back in less than a year? That just irritates me. In fairness, though, Batman & Robin has been the most fun Batman title in recent memory.

    • I’ll be picking up the trade. I hear it’s mind-blowingly good and wonderfully weird.

      I always looked at Morrison as a more extreme version of Moore. He’s embraced mainstream comics in a way that Moore refused to (despite writing the best Superman stories ever, Moore’s only prolonged superhero runs were Swamp Thing and Miracleman, neither household names, while Morrison has done runs on Batman, All-Star Superman, Flash and X-Men – among others), but also being just as creatively focused (both run their own highly successful comics playing with the medium).

  2. You’re right on about considering Volumes 1 and 2 as halves of a whole, especially when one takes into account how removed the later volumes are from the events of the first two. And I definitely think that Moore could have done no better than choosing War of the Worlds– one of the most recognizable and influential science fiction properties of all time– to follow up a storyline featuring one of genre fiction’s greatest villains. Following up one icon with another, especially these icons, makes a strange degree of sense despite the differences between the two.

  3. There’s actually an omnibus now that collects the whole series. It isn’t oversized like the absolute editions but we’ll worth a buy.

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