Jul 6, 2011

An ABC Retrospective, Day 3: LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN

Welcome to Day 3 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on America's Best Comics. You can read about this series here.

Today, we focus on THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill!



WHAT IT'S ABOUT

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN was published under the ABC imprint, but it is not part of the larger ABC universe. It stood on its own, and it is also the property with the easiest and possibly most enticing hook. In 1898, the British government needed a special band of secret agents, and they tapped characters from Victorian literature. Leading the pack was Wilhelmina Murray from Dracula, followed by Allan Quatermain from King Solomon's Mines, Edward Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hawley Griffin from The Invisible Man, and Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The second book has the same core group, while subsequent volumes only retain two of the members, adding characters based on those time periods. Throughout the entire series, various references are made, whether explicitly or in the background, to other fictional events that took place at those respective time periods.

It should also be noted that the series gets more and more adult as time goes by. There's full frontal nudity and a whole sex scene in the second volume, for example, and erotica text pieces by the third.

WHY IT WORKS

Okay, I lied. I told you yesterday that TOP 10 was the hardest one for me to write, but it's not. It's this one, probably because it's the work that connected with me least. Not because it's the worst of the lot (and even then, being the worst of the lot here is like being the slowest at a NASCAR race), but most likely because it's overwhelming on some level. So I had to read it again before posting this article. And boy, is it so much better now that I'm not 16 and an idiot. (That last part is debatable.) And you know what? That's why it works.

Of all the ABC titles, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is (1) the only one that the creators retained the original rights to, (2) DC actually bothered marketing and advertising, and (3) had a movie made of it (however horrible it is). So that just kind of shows that everyone involved in the project, from creation to distribution saw something special in LEAGUE, and it's for an easily discernible reason: if TOM STRONG is ABC's Superman, then LEAGUE is ABC's Sandman. It is the property that really aspires towards high literature, at least in terms of its concept, which is what Moore's work has always been known for as a writer.

But here's the bottom line: LEAGUE is fun to read. It's fun to read for four reasons.

(1) Moore and O'Neill are obviously having fun telling it. This is a world where the only restriction is that the things that happen must correspond to some piece of fiction that either exists in the public domain or the public consciousness (Moore gets past copyright issues by simply changing the looks and not referring to copyrighted characters by name). So from a character in Dracula slapping Mr. Hyde to the text pieces in the back, there's a sense of wonder that was once a defining characteristic of the best mainstream comic books. Seriously, folks, this is a world where the Heart of Darkness (from Apocalypse Now) is only a few miles away from the kingdom of Babar the elephant.

Babar! Celeste!!


(2) The production. I'm going to take this time to say that every ABC book looks great. Even in single issues, they were all produced at a high quality and they all look really pretty, thanks in no small part to the design work of Todd Klein. But with LEAGUE, everyone took the extra step. The comic has text pieces to accompany each story, for example. The first collection has an Allan Quatermain story that takes place some years before the events of LEAGUE, the second collection has an almanac of the League's world. Both features go a long way into connecting various events in the books, and really provide a more well-rounded view of the League's world.

Throughout the LEAGUE books, you are presented with maps, games (or parodies of games), and ads, some fake and some genuine,  from the 19th century.


It's this extra step that really makes LEAGUE feel like an artifact, different from all the other books on the market, and as enduring and "different" as some indie comics (Chris Ware's stuff comes to mind).

THE BLACK DOSSIER, the third book, is an original graphic novel and differs from the other volumes in that it's a collection of different features that is framed together by a comics sequence. It takes place in 1958, and has text pieces done in the style of Jack Kerouac, Tijuana bibles, a "lost" Shakespearean play detailing the origins of the League, a 3-D section that takes place in a setting that was alluded to in Volume 2, and more.




The whole thing feels disjointed, but that's the point. You're supposed to fit these pieces together, reconciling them with things that happened in previous volumes and things that will happen in future volumes. All at once, every LEAGUE volume hints at what came before and at what's to come. Which leads us to number 3.


(3) It makes you work. In addition to piecing things together, LEAGUE doesn't give you anything but the story. If you get the references, then you get the references. And if you don't, well, you may be lost, but it really makes you want to find out. You are never told who these guys are, for example. You have to either know who they are, or you find out.

Indeed, that's Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty.

The only things you're given are the things that are absolutely, totally essential to the story. You're told that Edward Hyde is the sum total of Henry Jekyll's sins, but you're never told why Mina Murray always wears a scarf. You have to find out on your own.

And that really is part of the fun, and it's a very rewarding process. You're never going to know who all these characters are, and you'll never get all the references, unless you were a lit major, and even then, the references in later volumes expand to more contemporary works. The more you learn, the more you'll get. It's very, very rewarding.

Another aspect of the series' making you work is the fact that Moore pulls no stops when it comes to the dialogue. He puts the dialogue in the language that it's meant to be in, as opposed to giving an English translated version. So, note here, when they see Fu Manchu The Doctor:


If you can understand Chinese, great. If not, you're at the mercy of punctuation marks and just the pictures. This is also true for Arabic, and in the second volume, you've got an entire chapter where Martians are talking in their own fictional language.

Which brings us to our next point.

(4) Moore and O'Neill are just damn good at what they do. There's an insane level of trust going on with this team for Moore to leave O'Neill to do the bulk of the storytelling here. Moore forgoes fanciful scripting, elaborate exposition, and poetic narration, and just lets O'Neill do his thing. Look at this one sequence where Mina and Griffin are talking to Quong Li, a teashop owner. Just look at the dialogue. That would not work with a lesser storyteller than Kevin O'Neill. The mood is perfect, the angles are just right, and he just knows when to zoom in and out.

Or just note this small sequence where Nemo is with his crew, talking about the League and whom among them he doesn't trust.

The fat guy is Ishmael from Moby Dick.


That's effective mood-setting and, more importantly, powerful storytelling.

Although Book 2 is more than a little anticlimactic, the storytelling done by Kevin O'Neill is still superb, and it will draw you into the story.


AFTER ABC: THE TOP SHELF ERA

Three LEAGUE books were published under the ABC imprint: Volume 1, Volume 2, and THE BLACK DOSSIER. The latter leads up to the next series of LEAGUE books, called CENTURY, published by Top Shelf Comix/Knockabout Comics after Moore left DC for good after a series of disputes. It consists of three issues, each one much thicker than the normal serial comic but much smaller than a trade paperback, and each takes place in a different era.

The first issue takes place in 1910, and even has song and dance numbers inspired by Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera:


The second issue takes place in 1969, and is out this August. It's entitled "Paint It Black":


And the third issue will take place in 2009.

It's a tale that spans a hundred years at least, and references things that came hundreds of years before, such as the Arthurian legends, and things of contemporary fiction, such as Harry Potter. 1910 was an interesting read, and like the other two, made much better after I knew what was being referenced. It's still a very rewarding comic, and I encourage you all to get into the series.

It's interesting to note that Moore is also now moving onto periods when copyright laws protect most fiction. How they'll get past this is going to be very interesting. James Bond has already shown up, and it's a very different, if logical, take on him. And for superhero fans and historians, you'll be glad to know that CENTURY has brought in two obscure favorites from The Golden Age of comics: Mick Anglo's Captain Universe and Stardust the Super Wizard.



JESS NEVINS

No coverage about THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN would be complete without Jess Nevins, who was putting up annotations for LEAGUE and other books (including TOP 10 and SMAX) as the series was being released. I remember collecting the series feverishly and then going on the Internet days after each issue came out to see Jess's annotations. They were an invaluable source of information, and his annotations for the first three LEAGUE books have been collected into three printed books: HEROES AND MONSTERS, A BLAZING WORLD, and IMPOSSIBLE TERRITORIES.

Unfortunately, Jess's site was on Geocities, which is shut down now, but EnjolrasWorld has them mirrored here.

If Jess Nevins is reading this, I wanna say thanks, 'cause I never would have gotten as much as I did without him.


For your convenience, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN:

3 comments:

Ben Smith said...

The League are the only ABC books I've been able to read so far, and I love them. That Alan Moore guy might make a name for himself in comics

Duy said...

Dude, forget that Moore guy. Those characters he's using might actually be worth something!

Tom Siebert said...

Volume Three, "Century," is now complete and the longest in the series, 200+ pages. It is the best since the first and maybe better (though the thrill of 1st discovery can never been repeated). The final compiled tale is ultimately a slicingly astute meta-comment on current "literary" entertainments for modern children, while nicely tying the main AntiChrist Moonchild storyline throughout the three chapters (1910, 1969, 2009) before the big payoff at the end. I thought this was a work of genius, frankly, and provides a good final chapter -- did anyone notice that when the series began, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had but one woman member, but by the end of this final (?) story, she is leading a League with no men at all? I felt like this was one of man subtexts Moore wove into his tale. There's a lot to think about in "Century," a masterfully intricate piece of dark narrative art from late career Alan Moore, with the always distinctive Kevin O'Neill handing art.

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