Tor.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.