Saturday, January 12, 2008

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

DC Comics/Wildstorm/America's Best Comics

$29.99 Hardcover

I was a big fan of Alan Moore’s first two League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. The idea of taking various 1890’s British adventure heroes (Alan Quatermain from the H. Ryder Haggard novels, Mina Murray from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man) and putting them together into what amounts to a turn of the century Justice League had obvious appeal. And like the Harry Potter series, its obstinate British-ness was a large part of the appeal. When, at the end of the second series, the team split up (well, two of them died, Hyde heroically and the Invisble Man … less heroically, is all I’ll say) it seemed like Moore might be done with the concept.

Except he said that he wasn’t. What followed in the real world was an acrimonious split with the publisher DC Comics over the Wachowskie’s V for Vendetta movie. That really seemed like the nail in the coffin. Work had already begun on this current volume and it was under contract, so it continued and was released as the last of Moore’s DC/America’s Best Comics works. Unlike the previous volumes, this one is not the collection of a mini-series. This is a stand-alone graphic novel

Art: I can’t say enough about Kevin O’Neill’s meticulous artwork for this volume. Moore has said he would continue this series with no other artist and it’s easy to see why. Its first impression is one of sketchiness, messiness, which fits with the incredibly outsize, bizarre, glorious but undeniably messy world these characters inhabit. But when you really look you can see how clean the artwork is, not a line wasted. It’s the only way O’Neill can fit the vast level of detail, the little throwaway artistic asides that Moore calls for. And he calls for a lot. Every page, nearly every panel, has some little intricacy that can reward the alert, or well-educated reader. I am not always alert and lack the study in British esoterica that is demanded to understand everything here. But O’Neill is the only reason it works at all. Without O’Neill, this thing would be a complete mess.

Story: And a complete mess it is. That’s not fair, actually, there is a pretty clear throughline. The plot, to summarize, is this. Mina Murray and Alan Quatermain Jr. (I’m just going with what’s claimed. It’s pretty obvious who is really is) return to 1950’s Britain to claim the titular Black Dossier that contains all the information British intelligence has of the various Extraordinary teams Murray and Quatermain have belonged to, as well other counterparts assembled by the French, German, and British governments (but not the Americans, which actually surprised me). Along the way, the are pursued by just vague enough to avoid copyright laws versions of James Bond and Emma Peel. These two do not come off well. We are given a much different view of the history of the 20th century, culminating in a version of Orwell’s 1984 coming to pass in the 40’s and Rockets launching people and robots into space in the 50’s. The worldbuilding is brilliant, and the story really just serves as a way to show all of that off. On that level, it worked.

Interspersed with the graphic novel story, are sections of the Black Dossier itself, which includes intelligence reports, an 18th century pornographic novel, a comic strip history of Orlando, and other bizarre jewels. One of my favorites was the beat novel written by Sal Paradise, hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road battling (I think) the Triffids. Just go with it.

And that’s actually my advice to enjoy this story. Just go with it. It’s not actually supposed to make sense, actually. In many ways it is Alan Moore at his most obtuse and self-indulgent. If you understand that going you, you’ll enjoy it just fine. I did. I’m not sure it’s the work of staggering genius Moore and his defenders seem to think it is. There’s a lot of sex, and while I’m not offended it becomes tiresome after a while, especially when the Golliwag and his “friends” show up (just go with it).

Bottom line: I liked it. But it would have been elevated by an actual story to go along with all the histrionics and asides. You’ll probably not understand much of it unless you are a Brit of Moore’s generation or have done some serious study. I had to consult Jess Nevin’s comic book annotations to understand most of it. But it’s rewarding for those willing to do the work. I’m just not sure it’s rewarding enough to pay off the man hours involved.

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