Mon
Dec 17 2012 4:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Part Four: Century

The Great Alan Moore Reread: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Part Four: CenturyTor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months%more than a year to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 60th installment.

Of all the comic book series Alan Moore has worked on, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the only one still showing definite signs of life. Because Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill owned The League, they didn’t have to put it to rest like the other comics in the “America’s Best” lineup after Moore’s decisive break with Wildstorm and DC Comics.

Around 2005, Moore had become estranged from DC (again) after a series of incidents beginning with the pulping of an entire print run of an issue of The League a few years earlier—because of the use of an authentic turn-of-the-century advertisement for a “Marvel Whirling Spray Syringe”—and growing antagonism about the V for Vendetta movie and Moore’s increasingly vocal attempts to remove himself from any association with the film along with DC’s mistreatment of Kevin O’Neill as they pressured him to complete Black Dossier and ultimately released a product that didn’t include a planned audio recording. The Black Dossier friction, according to Moore, stemmed from hostilities that erupted when DC Comics learned that Moore and O’Neill were planning to bring their next chapters of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to the much-smaller-scale publisher Top Shelf Productions, once their previously-promised commitments to DC were completed.

In a 2007 interview with Comic Book Resources, Moore listed his problems with DC, emphasizing their treatment of O’Neill and their inability to release the complete-with-audio version of Black Dossier, even when the book received an expensive Absolute Edition: “I don’t know, at the end of the day, it could be an almost unbelievable pettiness and malice that was behind this, or it could be an equally unbelievable incompetence. Or it could be some heady and dizzying blend of the two. Whatever the reason, I felt that if I was going to continue to do works of the complexity of the Black Dossier, and I do, then probably the mainstream American comic book industry is not the place for them. I don’t know if it has ever been the place.”

Off to the realm of independent comics, then, where Top Shelf bosses Chris Staros and Brett Warnock were ready with the kind of offer that Moore had been unable to find in his relationship with DC Comics: make the comics you want, when you want, and we will publish them.

The result was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century, a three-part time-hopping epic about the coming of the Antichrist, framed by allusions to The Threepenny Opera and a brutal criticism of one of the most popular fantasy series in history.

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910 (Top Shelf Productions & Knockabout Comics, 2009)

The three-book Century, which takes place in 1910, 1969, and 2009, presents itself as a work tainted by the Black Dossier. While The League stories have always been darkly comic, the first two series expressed an underlying sense of whimsy, if not a free-wheeling one. There is little whimsy in the three-volumes of Century. The world has become grimmer, characters are meaner, threats are more apocalyptic. These comics are still jammed with allusions, but almost angrily so. These aren’t literary characters on a barbed romp. No, they are literary characters fighting for their lives in an increasingly hostile environment. The romanticism—no matter how dark—has been replaced by the perils of Modernism. Things look bleak.

The characters are aware of this cultural shift. Near the end of Century: 1910, Mycroft Holmes—older, if not necessarily wiser—comments upon the freeing of the clearly-guilty criminal Jack MacHeath, a man condemned to the gallows earlier in the book for a series of heinous murders: “It seems that in our new century, fortune is set to favor Mr. MacHeath and his kind…and may heaven help us all.”

MacHeath is the “Mack the Knife” of The Threepenny Opera fame (or, in America, of Bobby Darin fame). He’s violent. He’s uncouth. He’s low-class. And class is certainly a factor in Century, far more than it was in previous volumes. In 20th century fiction and popular culture, you don’t get away with being a group of fancy rich lads and lasses saving the world thanks to ingenuity. Or, if you do, you don’t get away with it without scars.

Century: 1910 is probably the least satisfying of any single installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, partly because it takes place before the framing sequence in the previously-released Black Dossier, so it feels like a bit of a step backwards, but also because it sets up the swirling chaos of the new status-quo in a rather unpleasant way, with oppression and rape and darkness and bombardment and flames and the stirrings of the Crowlean Oliver Haddo and the plot to bring forth the Antichrist.

And it’s not just Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Mack the Knife who plays a prominent role, as The Threepenny Opera’s Pirate Jenny, here the defiant daughter of Captain Nemo, called “Janni” undergoes the torment described in the song and not only dreams of attacking the wharf and destroying her abusers, but brings her revenge fantasies to life thanks to her newfound stewardship of the heavily-armed Nautilus.

Mina Murray, Allan Quatermain, and Orlando are still the central characters in the League (along with a couple of other less effective companions), but they are overshadowed in this opening volume of Century by the horrors and the violence as they only begin to grasp the larger social and cosmic forces at work in 1910. On the final page of this installment, Mack the Knife sings as the city burns around him, and the future doesn’t look as bright as it once did.

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1969 (Top Shelf Productions & Knockabout Comics, 2011)

But it turns out that the future is bright, or at least brightly-colored, as the story picks up 59 years after the events of the first chapter, and psychedelia is in full bloom. While Century: 1910 was all browns and blacks and greys, Century: 1969 is all blues and greens and yellows and purples and pinks. While the soundtrack to the former was indebted to Kurt Weill, the soundtrack to the latter is Mick Jagger, strutting and preening and posturing around the stage as he prepares to become the new host for a demonic soul.

Though 1969 clocks in at 80 pages like the other volumes of Century, it feels like the slightest chapter in terms of story, but the densest in terms of cultural references. As we get closer to the present day, Moore and O’Neill’s conceit about mashing together literary characters in an adventure story gives way to a new approach: mashing literary characters into a pop culture landscape while providing a more overt social critique. The series shifts from parody and pastiche to satire in Century, at least as a primary mode, and while 1969 may be colorful on the surface, it presents a world that is shallow and deeply wicked. Moore and O’Neill seem to take great delight in depicting such a time and place, and that adds to the liveliness of this installment, even if the entire chapter revolves around the relatively thin story of Oliver Haddo’s attempt to find a new body to host his vile soul.

He ultimately gives up on taking over the body of the Mick Jagger stand-in (whacked-out rock star Terner, or Turner, from the Nicolas Roeg film Performance, starring…Mick Jagger), and reaches for the still-youthful body of Mina Murray, but she is protected by a magical ward, so his soul ends up diving for shelter in the sleazy stranger who has befriended Mina and taken the time to grope her excessively while she battles Haddo in the astral plane.

The body Haddo ends up inhabiting? He identifies himself as Tom, but says his middle name’s a “marvel,” and his last name’s a “conundrum.” You may know him as Tom Marvolo Riddle. You definitely know him as Lord Voldemort.

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009 (Top Shelf Productions & Knockabout Comics, 2012)

So Lord Voldemort is the Antichrist, then? No, the Antichrist, the “Moonchild” was yet to be born as of the 1969 chapter. And though the name Hogwarts or Dumbledore or Potter are never mentioned, the Antichrist is unmistakable in this final chapter of Century: it’s Harry Potter, who has murdered his classmates and burned down his school. Bald, covered with eyeballs, using his own special kind of wand, he is the great beast that will bring about the apocalypse. Unless Mina Murray, Orlando, and Allan Quatermain can stop him before it’s too late.

Only there’s a problem (besides a ragingly evil, hideous Harry Potter who shall-not-be-named): Mina was institutionalized after the events in the final scenes in Century: 1969, and she’s remained in a padded room ever since. Allan has fallen on hard times, abandoning his friends and finding sweet succor in baser pleasures. As I said, things get bleak in this Century. Orlando is the only one left who can do anything about the impending doom, and old Prospero pops out of the Blazing World long enough to stir the near-immortal gender-shifting hero back into action.

I wouldn’t say Century: 2009 is what normally passes for a “fun” comic, but it’s pretty fun to see Orlando reassemble the team, and witness the attempted redemption of Allan Quatermain, and the vicious jabs Moore and O’Neill take at J. K. Rowling’s fictional reality: “The whole environment seems artificial,” says Mina, “as if it’s been constructed out of reassuring imagery from the 1940s.”

And their depiction of the savagely deranged and nearly unstoppable Harry Potter has charms all its own, even if O’Neill unleashes his most unpleasantly gruesome art since his early days working on “Nemesis the Warlock” for 2000 A.D. Unpleasantly gruesomely beautifully horribly great, I should say.

In the end, with the Antichrist unleashed, a deus ex machine is in order, and this one comes in the form of a reality-shifting nanny, descending from the Blazing World, holding her umbrella proudly aloft. Mary Poppins is presented here as an embodiment of God, or an agent of the divine force, and she has no tolerance for the naughty young Mr. Potter.

That might seem like the stuff of whimsy, but the way Moore and O’Neill tell it, it’s more tragic than comic.

Moore and O’Neill conclude their most recent—but not final, since we already have word of an upcoming Nemo: Heart of Ice project scheduled for release in 2013—League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume with a tombstone. Allan Quatermain has not survived this Modern world, even with the fountain of youth granting him near-immortality. But he’s not alone in the end. His tombstone stands beside other heroes of the past, where he’s in good company.

 

NEXT TIME: Alice! Wendy! Dorothy! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore in Lost Girls.


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

11 comments
rob mcCathy
1. roblewmac
Is Harry Potter "Reassurring" if you are English? I disliked the books becuase I found their whole cosmos creepy. The universe is run by a secret boarding School of Wizards who call normal people "Muggles" and let three child save them from themselves as they watch FOOTBALL.
I suspect Moore dilikes wizards that make it "look easy" smirk
Kevin Maroney
2. womzilla
If I recall correctly, the Antichrist here is actually given a name, Will Stanton--who is the "chosen boy wizard" of The Dark Is Rising. The Antichrist isn't just Potter; he's all the "chosen boys" of fantasy.
Sol Foster
3. colomon
I've got to say, reading these allegedly positive reviews of the later League books makes me feel like my decision to give up on the title after the dire War of the Worlds episode was extremely wise.
alastair chadwin
4. a-j
It's a tad disingenuous of Moore to have a pop at Harry Potter for being constructed from 1940s imagery given that the whole League set up is constructed from late 19th/early 20th century popular fiction. It's hard not to wonder why it's all right for Moore/O'Neill to do it, but not for JK Rowling and harder not to suspect that her real crime was to be too successful.

For me, The League is an excellent example of diminishing returns. The first story was a spectacular and wildly entertaining romp with each subsequent story increasingly attempting to carry a philosophical weight that they cannot bear. And the final deus ex machina, while great fun in execution, is pretty disgraceful in story-telling terms.
Kevin Maroney
5. womzilla
a-j,

I didn't think Moore was "having a pop at Harry Potter for being constructed from 1940s imagery" but for building a world which uncritically appeals to that nostalgia. League wallows in nostalgia and backwards-looking, but it mostly does so critically--to the extent that when Moore is unashamedly nostalgic for problematic things*, it's rather suprising.

*Yes, I am thinking of the Golliwog here. China Mieville had a gentle but pointed stab at that in a recent issue of Dial H--#6, I think.
Doug M.
6. Doug M.
Is it just me, or did the plot of that last book -- such as it was -- make no sense whatsoever? I mean, Mary Poppins steps in at the end and saves everything. So why couldn't she have done that 60 pages earlier? What point did Orlando's actions have?

Also: Poppins is presented as awesome, and unironically so. Moore isn't critical of her at all! This leaves a strange unpleasant taste. It's like, okay, there are plenty of valid critiques to make of Harry Potter -- but what makes him creepy and damaging and bad, while Mary Poppins is awesome and full of wonder? It's hard not to think that this is Moore yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. "In my day, we had REAL kids books!"

Speaking only for myself, this marks the point not only where I gave up on Moore, but also realized that I should have done so years earlier.


Doug M.
Doug M.
7. Tumas
@6:

"Speaking only for myself, this marks the point not only where I gave up on Moore, but also realized that I should have done so years earlier."

Having just gone through Century: 2009 myself, I share your sentiments.
Kevin Maroney
8. womzilla
Back in March at the Conference on the Fantastic, I used Century as an example of something that could work in comics but would be almost impossible to do in prose (and tough in film). The antagonist in 1969 is not Michael Caine, and is not Charlie Croker or Jack Carter. Instead, he's an amalgam of all 3, information that is conveyed through the a blend of visuals and text that inform comics.

That Moore--he's one smart cookie.
Doug M.
9. Robertandrewscottandrew
I'm a big fan of the series, but things have really drifted off since 1910. The last entry into the main canon of the series was a poorly written, overly indulgent, elitist bit of crap. I enjoyed the swashbuckling swagger of the first two stories and think that somehow, right after that wretched movie got made, that Uncles Alan and Kevin lost the point.

"Century" had a clever idea to build on, but couldn't deliver. "Heart Of Ice" was a confusing mess. I'm eager to see what will happen next, but I think we've seen the last of the glory days. From this point on it will be one "Clever" literary comment to another filled in with story (it used to be the other way around).

There is so much to tell with the adventures of the earlier league. Keep it simple. Keep it as an adventure. Keep it interesting and non-critical. Moore is at his best when he's just telling stories. The platform of social cynicism and rants doesn't play well in graphic novels. Put it somewhere else.
Doug M.
11. Stephen B.
I reviewed again the replies above and comments (posted 2012)
personally I did find many of the LEAGUE books and NEMO were all but confusing.
Moore is a favorite; he is a very solid writer! His comics and stories are some I've enjoyed as much as any OTHER writer or story I'd read prior.
Some works from Moore are just made and plotted to seem to me almost un-reachable. The LEAGUE series had me thinking if it could be my insight as a reader or if it could be the story and plots at heart of the ‘blame.’
But there are a lot of other books and popular series out and more very poorly done comics. I guess we have to look for and take the good with the bad. I think there are a lot of readers people follow and a lot of new books / graphic collections that seem to just be so very sub-par.
?
SB
Doug M.
12. Stephen B
' ... writers people follow and a lot of new books '

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