The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Century 1910, 1969 & 2009 (America’s Best Comics/WildStorm/DC Comics/Top Shelf)
Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Kevin O’Neil
Any time we go away for more than a few days, I like to give myself what I call a project comic. This is where I grab a bunch of issues or trades of one series or a particular creator and dive in. For Christmas, we went to visit my wife’s parents in New Hampshire and after a lot of thinking (more than I like to admit, really), I settled on giving League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a read from Black Dossier through the last Century book, which I hadn’t read yet. After finishing Century 2009 I hadn’t quite gotten my fill of the series, so I went back and gave the first two volumes a read and had a delightful time with the whole series.I’m going to start off with this post focusing mainly on Black Dossier and the Century trilogy and then come back for the second part which will talk about the books and concepts in broader terms.
If you’re not familiar with the general concept behind League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it started out as a Victorian superhero team of sorts that brought together Mina Murray from Dracula, Alan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought together by the British government to help them defeat extranormal threats. The bigger idea is that Alan Moore created a world inhabited by many of the characters we’ve read about it books for as long as the written word has been around. While introducing his versions of these characters and the kind of world that can hold them all, Moore also hinted at a much deeper and richer history to this world.
Black Dossier completely revolves around that history. The book works on two levels. First, it’s your average comic book showing the latest adventures of Mina Murray and Quartermain in 1958 as they steal the document you’re reading in an attempt to figure out what the government knows of their exploits since they severed ties. It’s also the aforementioned collection of documents all pertaining to the history of the League as if it were put together by someone in that universe. So, while you get your comic story, you’re also, essentially, looking at papers that are not for your eyes only, making it kind of fun and sneaky.
I’m impressed with how dedicated Moore was to the idea of this book. The documents he created range from forgotten Shakespeare plays and weird mod tales to journal entries and MI6 correspondences. From my limited experience with the types of writing Moore pays homage to in these stories, he does a solid job of matching them and utilizing them to convey information accurately in the style of the respective eras.
To be honest, though, reading through all those text pieces can be a slog. While I appreciate Moore’s attention to detail and ability to switch styles with the flip of a page, I wonder if the whole thing is a little more, “Hey, I bet I can do this,” than, “Hey this will serve the story really well.” I’m still on the fence with this point but think I’m leaning towards the latter. I like the idea of the format and maybe just wish there had been more image-oriented tales instead of page after page of dense text. I admit, I tend to have a problem getting interested in all-text pages in comics, so that doesn’t help. Still, I stuck with this one and read almost every single bit, skipping some paragraphs here and there to get to the point a bit quicker.
As far as the references this series is known for, I liked seeing James Bond’s involvement. I mean, he’s not treated particularly well and seems more based on the movie version of the character than the one I’ve read about in the first few Ian Flemming novels (to my poor memory, at least), but it was neat to see Campion’s relative involved in the proceedings. I know there was a lot of problems getting this book published, I believe because Moore wanted to incorporate more overt references to pop culture characters but DC was worried about a legal backlash. I’d love to hear what those were, if anyone knows of a good interview on the subject — or LOEG in general — please drop me a link in the comments.
While I’m not 100% in agreement with the presentation of all the information conveyed to the reader in this book, I do really appreciate the lengths Moore went to to not only stick with his vision, but also give the reader a mountain of information and history to comb through and absorb. I forgot most of what was in the text sections after only reading this book one time previously, but it’s still amazing the way he weaves together all kinds of existing fictional elements into a brand new tapestry that has its own history. It does raise a few questions like how come no one seems to believe in weird stuff in this world that not only survived a Martian invasion but at one time had an England ruled by a faerie queen? But overall, I like the information, I like the intent and above all else I loved getting to see Mina and Alan together again doing their thing. I’m a sucker for that thing in fiction where you allow your characters to cheat death and be together, it’s the hopeless romantic in me I guess. Oh, minor SPOILER, but Mina and Alan found a fountain of youth in Africa which is why they’re neither decrepit nor dead.
Things were a lot less romantic in the Century volumes, at least as they progress. These three books were presented in prestige format with mostly comic pages and a few text pages in the back. I admit, after going through Black Dossier, I skipped all the other supplementary materials moving forward. Anyway, Century 1910 gives us a look at what the British government has dubbed The Mina Group, consisting of mostly new members, trying to stop the birth of an apocalyptic individual called the mooonchild.
The plot mainly revolves around that, allowing the reader to get their first real look at the team that now includes Quartermain Jr., Carnacki, A.J. Raffles and Orlando who becomes a major part of the next two books. I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the giddy thrill of reading these new characters just because I’m nowhere near as familiar with them as the members of the first team, but it was still an enjoyable read with an intriguing story. We’re also shown what happens to Captain Nemo and the brutal, unfortunate tale that finds his daughter becoming the captain of the Nautilus.
Let’s call the next paragraph SPOILERVILLE. The most interesting part of this story is that, thanks to the soothsaying visions of team member Carnacki and the ensuing investigation by the team, they actually plant the ideas necessary to bring about the apocalypse in the villain’s mind. I thought that was kind of a brilliant and tragic kick off to a three part story. My only complaint about the book is that it seems a little bit preachy at the end. Actually, preachy’s probably not the right word, but the reason Nemo’s daughter decides to become the new Captain Nemo is because a bunch of drunks at the bar she works at rape her one night. She decides to bring down the thunder of the Nautilus on these people as revenge and then continue her father’s work. The very end of the book features a murderer and a barmaid sing a song about how terrible the world is and that the basic needs of the people need to be met if the higher classes expect things to get better. This is actually an opinion I agree with, but a part of me saw the brutality of Neo Nemo’s situation exploited to make this point. I know it holds with the history of the time and this is a fictional character, but that feeling still nags at me.
This second volume of Century, set in 1969, follows the adventures of Mina, Alan and Orlando who have become an adventuring trio who no long work for the British government. Much has happened in the 59 years since the previous volume (and the 11 years since Black Dossier), but like all the other installments of this franchise, most of them are hinted at or further explored in the text pieces that remain half- or un-read by yours truly. I’m particularly interested in Mina’s superhero team, but will get to that eventually.
Anyway, it’s the swinging 60s in London and our heroes are reminded of the old case revolving around the moonchild and the apocalypse. This time, the nefarious plot revolves around the bad guy who hops from body to body and intends to take over the lead singer of a Rolling Stones-esque band.
Since I’ve already fallen hard for these characters, I think I’d enjoy seeing them in just about any situation, but I’m also fascinated by this era in history and love the way it lends itself to a visual medium like comics. I also really enjoyed seeing how this trio had progressed over the years and how they deal with their immortality in different ways, especially how Mina adopts the language of the times in order to not feel like a dinosaur.
I also like how I got a lot more of the references in this volume. I mean, the Ruttles are a big band in this world, which is hilarious and awesome. There’s still a lot that went over my head, but I’m used to that from every other volume. Speaking of references, this volume is basically one giant nod to Empire Strikes Back. You’ve got the heroes learning more about the villains, a battle between the main hero and the main villain and a super-downer ending that makes you salivate for the next installment. For what it’s worth, I don’t usually get emotionally worked up when it comes to comics, but I got pretty upset with what happened to Mina at the end of this book. I was even more upset when I read 2009, though.
Seriously, when I realized what had happened between 1969 and 2009 with these three characters I was heartbroken, or at least as heartbroken as I can get from fictional characters. It’s just so sad. Forget about losing a a hand and realizing your dad’s a galactic-level jerk, Mina, Orlando and Alan had it ROUGH.
This volume finally brings the promise of the first to a head as the apocalypse and moonchild are both confirmed unless our incredibly damaged heroes can stop them. This part of the story is not only about defeating what seems undefeatable in an external sense, but also getting over even the worst possible things done to you by others or yourself. It’s about triumph over adversity and for that it’s a positive and exciting tale, one that features a SPOILER Harry Potter analog fighting Mary Poppins…or god, or something, I’m not quite sure, but I liked it better than that weirdness at the London Olympic Opening Ceremony.
As you’d expect, I got WAY more of Moore’s references this time around, which always adds to the enjoyment of these books. The more you’re in on the joke, the funnier it is and all that. I also like how the mythology of this series kind of came to a head with several characters from other books, including Dossier, making appearances and playing important parts in the story.
Getting back to SPOILERVILLE, beware. Still, it’s not the happiest of endings, is it? While Orlando and Mina seem to get through the final battle relatively unscathed, poor Alan looks to have died. We see that he was taken back to their fountain of youth, but doesn’t seem to have made it. Here’s the thing though, we know that Alan’s faked his death before and it’s possible that Mina and Orlando don’t trust their new former government friends as much as they’re letting on. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of him. I hope we do, I’ve grown quite fond of these characters of the years.
I’ll get into this in more detail in the next post, but one of the reasons I went back to read the first two LOEG volumes was because I wanted to see how Mina and Alan’s relationship started out. It’s much different than what we see in BD and the Century books. I like who Moore developed them both as individual characters and their relationship as its own kind of entity, not to mention how the inclusion of Orlando altered and augmented that union. At the end of the day, beneath all the literary characters and all the references and all the magic and sci-fi and fantasy, League is actually the story of two very extraordinary people not only teaming up but finding love in a world that never fails to surprise and accost them. That simple nugget in the center of this much larger thing is what readers can grab onto while being exposed to the strange, wonderful and horrible.