Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve monthsmore 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 57thinstallment.
In every meaningful way, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the oldest of the America’s Best Comics lineup, and yet it’s the last series I’m writing about as I review the Alan Moore work from that Wildstorm/DC Comics imprint.
Why? Because it’s the best, and I’ve saved the best for last. But it’s also the longest-running and most current, with a new volume of the series coming out as recently as last summer and another spin-off—Nemo: Heart of Ice—planned for early next year.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is both old and new, recent and old-fashioned, filled with characters ripped from the pages of Victorian literature and thrown together in quasi-superteam fashion, with the fate of the British Empire at stake! Some folks even pooled their money to make a misguided big-budget fan film starring Sean Connery. Those folks are called 20th Century Fox, and even though 2013 will be the tenth anniversary of that movie, I suspect you may not hear any celebratory rumblings. But you never know. I can see the tagline already: “LXG times 10! Better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, at least!”
If you only know Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the movie version, of the advertisements for the movie version, you have a completely botched idea of what’s actually inside the comic. You’ll find no drag racing through the streets of Venice here. You’ll find no racing to speak of at all. You’ll find few quippy one-liners before an action-packed shootout. You’ll find no vampire gals or Dorians, Gray or otherwise.
What you will find in this first six-issue series, is a relatively subdued exploration of Victoriana, a kind of parallel Earth in which all fiction of the era is true and the public domain characters can intersect, team up, and undermine nefarious schemes with increasingly preposterous measures. It’s more literate than any Hollywood movie, and sleazier and more violent than any novel published in 1898. It didn’t make my Top 10 Comics of the Decade list just because of that, though. As a whole, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen verges on the boundaries of being a comic book masterpiece. It’s for-real good, not just good-for-America’s-Best-Comics-era-Alan-Moore.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen#1-6 (Wildstorm/America’s Best Comics, March 1999-Sept. 2000)
Reportedly, this series was first kicked around, at least conceptually, around the time Moore was writing From Hell and the original serialization of Lost Girls in the Taboo anthology in the late 1980s and he stumbled across an obvious idea: throwing a bunch of public domain characters into the same story. Moore refers to The League as “almost a bastard stepchild of Lost Girls, just suddenly realizing the richness of the literary landscape we’re surrounded by, and that it’s all laying there for the taking.”
“I knew straight away that this was a top-drawer idea,” adds Moore, according to Gary Spencer Millidge’s Alan Moore: Storyteller. “Because it was blindingly obvious, blindingly simple, and nobody had done it. Those are always the best.”
The original plan supposedly involved an original graphic novel with Top Shelf, and then it turned into something with Awesome Entertainment, and at one point Simon Bisley was involved as the artist. But, in the end, it was 2000 A.D. and Marshal Law artist Kevin O’Neill who would become Moore’s collaborator on the project, and though the series debuted through Wildstorm and the America’s Best Comics imprint, it was a concept fully owned by the creators, which is why it has been published elsewhere in the years since Moore’s final split with DC and what remained of Wildstorm Comics.
In the Millidge book, Kevin O’Neill comments on how challenging it was for him to draw the first series compared to other projects he’d worked on in the past: “I found myself drawing people and situations entirely new to my experience. Mina (the female protagonist, of Dracula fame) standing aloof or drinking tea was far more difficult for me than Marshal Law destroying a city block of evil superheroes.”
Though the second half of the first League series would lean more toward O’Neill’s bombastic preferences with a London under siege, the first few issues do rely on plenty of tense exchanges between characters who are basically standing around talking to one another, and O’Neill does a more-than-admirable job portraying the underlying conflicts and convincingly mashing up these characters from disparate sources.
In the first scene, we meet Campion Bond (of the Bond family) and Mina Murray (formerly of the Harker family) on Albion Reach, a massive bridge connecting England to the continent. And then we cut to Mina’s recruitment of the opium-tainted Allan Quatermain (of King Solomon’s Mines) and the revelation of the breaching Nautilus piloted by Prince Dakkar, also known as Captain Nemo. That’s all in the first dozen pages of the first issue, and O’Neill gives each character a distinctive presence—nothing at all like any of their Hollywood incarnations before or since—and binds them all together with a common angularity and seriousness of purpose. This isn’t the ha-ha romp that we saw Moore pull off in Supreme when he smashed together various superhero archetypes in Rick Veitch’s shifting stylistic modes. No, this is literary stuff, and Moore seems to have more reverence for it, even if the comic is full of dark ironies and plenty of straight-faced gags (usually involving terrible violence).
I should note—I would be negligent not to note—that just within those first dozen pages Moore and O’Neill not only introduce those important characters (with others—like Mr. Hyde and the Invisible Man still to come) but they also layer in so many allusions and implications and literary/cultural echoes that annotator supreme Jess Nevins (with help from other readers) has devoted over 5000 words of explication. Let me emphasize: that is over 5000 words about just the first twelve pages of the first issue of the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.
You don’t need to read any of those 5000 words to understand what happens in the first twelve pages, but the annotations make the experience all the more rich, and I’d say that becomes even more true as the League series progresses into future volumes and more obscure British literary references arise. But the first series is relatively straightforward and characters demonstrate enough about who they are and what they’re all about that you don’t necessarily have to get the references to make sense out of the whole thing.
Plus, the characters Moore and O’Neill deal with primarily in this first volume are mostly characters who have transcended their Victorian literary roots to become much more culturally significant. You wouldn’t have had to have read any Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne or H. G. Wells to know about Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man. But another great feature of the League comics is that they make you want to go back and read Stevenson, Verne, and Wells. The characters are so well-defined and evocative here, and you’re tempted to learn more about them from the original sources.
As far as the plot of this first League series goes, it’s full of twists, but the first half is basically about assembling the team—and while the introduction of Mr. Hyde, via a twist on Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” is shocking and thrilling, the introduction of the Invisible Man as a ghost in a girls’ school wins the prize for being hilarious and vile and morally reprehensible and amazing as a slice of storytelling—and the second half of the series is about the group investigating a mystery and tracking down clues and ultimately confronting a massive conspiracy involving their own mysterious benefactor.
Moore and O’Neill give us Chinese war-kites and aerial cannons and a flying death ray and a hot air balloon and all of these classic literary characters in the mix of a chaotic London. It climaxes spectacularly and ends a bit abruptly, and before we know it the story’s over and the city is saved and a new threat emerges in the skies above. But the heroes don’t know it yet. Not until Volume Two.
Fifty-seven weeks into this Alan Moore reread, my enthusiasm for his work is recharged! Bring on the next installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen!
NEXT TIME: Mars attacks, as they say. The second League series! Exclamations abound!
Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.