Rereading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book III: Century, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.
You read the first two books of a series and they’re about the Justice Society: Superman and Hawkman and Starman and the Atom and all those guys. You get to know them. Then book three comes out and it’s about the Justice League of America living in a mountain: still Superman but a different Atom and a different Flash and some other dudes. Then the next book is about the Satellite Justice League, then Justice League Detroit, then the JLA in their Watchtower on the moon. Just as you’re getting comfortable with the chronology suddenly you’re reading an Aquaman spinoff. Confused yet?
The comparison I’m drawing here is with the era-hopping storytelling of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The first two books assembled the League, a nice conceit taking characters from all the era’s outlandish fictions, and then shockingly disassembled them. And it’s an educated conjecture to say that from there two further books were planned; the third the still untold story of Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray in Arkham in America, teaming up with Randolph Carter against Lovecraftian horrors, and the fourth the pre-World War One story of the League versus their French counterparts Les Hommes Mystérieux. After that, maybe the hinted-at return to the 18th century and the Gulliver League. Or perhaps Moore would have moved on, like he did from fellow America’s Best Comics titles Tom Strong and Top Ten, leaving questions unanswered and a world abandoned.
Instead LOEG book two-and-a-half, according to its author’s numbering, appeared. The Black Dossier. There are people – I’ve read comments, I can’t remember names – who gave up on the League after this. And it is where the series’ transformation, from a bit of fun which turned out to have surprising depths into a cosmology, is cemented. It had begun in LOEG book two, which by its end killed two members and had two resign, and in the back-up text pieces which extended the narrative of Allan and Mina by making both immortal. The dark, heavy stormclouds of a world beyond adventure stories had been gathering since the very first chapter and the Black Dossier is the deluge.
The putative fourth book, English League vs French League, is dispatched in a couple of pages of text. So is the disastrous 1946 League of Warralson, which could easily have been another miniseries. Instead we’re given origins at length, of the 17th-century League and of Orlando, and adventures in sketch form of Gulliver’s 18th-century League and of Murray and Quatermain. There’s almost a hundred pages of chase scene woven through it, true, but the point of that isn’t the action. It’s an exploration, an extension of the League concept from the Victorian years into the 1950s, and it’s necessary to put all the other fragments into context, to demonstrate that the fictions of any era can be assembled to make a cohesive whole. It doesn’t have to be Moriarty and Fu Manchu or Verne and Verne to work; the sources don’t have to be literary and don’t have to have that distance. (They don’t need to be out of copyright.) Moore and O’Neill can shuffle Nineteen Eighty-Four and Billy Bunter and Emma Peel together, on a foundation of Shakespeare, and it still works.
It’s an Alan Moore talking point, repeated to interviewers: “Somewhere during the first issue when I realised that I’d got Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde having just killed Emile Zola’s Nana on Edgar Allan Poe’s Rue Morgue, I thought, this is good.” It was a revelation that this story could be more than just a 19th-century Justice League. But it was also the culmination of a long search.
The reasons Moore stopped working for DC and Marvel – it never really started with Marvel – are well-rehearsed. But in leaving the big publishers of superhero comics behind, in his rejection of the work-for-hire world that enriches corporations and devalues creators, he left the secret of his superhero success. For Alan Moore, the basic building block of superhero comics is the universe. That shared universe where archetypes can be plucked from the vine, where there’s always a character or a piece of history that can be repurposed to suit your story, where there’s a reality, of a kind, that existed before you came along and will carry on long after you’re gone. Having done the superhero in a vacuum twice in Captain Britain and Marvelman, and in this analogy England is the vacuum, he needed a universe to write the superhero comics the market wanted him to write. So he began creating universes.
First came the 1963 universe, backward and to the side from Image, a pastiche of Marvel’s trailblazing days. Six comics, eight lead features, all different, all showing different aspects of a single fictional reality. Simple, derivative, but fun, and unfortunately curtailed before the clash of universes it was leading up to. Having failed in his goal of contrasting his Silver Age heroes with the Image stars of the Chromium Age, Moore began writing for Image but the fissures between the founders meant that any shared continuity was built on shifting sand. So he began again, creating a universe around Rob Liefield’s Superman-cypher Supreme, using flashbacks to retcon an entire continuity into being, team-ups and teams and all, doing to DC’s past what 1963 did to Marvel. And despite Supreme drifting from Image to Maximum Press to Awesome the initial 12-issue story was completed and another universe was founded. The mini-series Judgment Day was shot through with flashbacks creating a publishing history for Awesome, with analogues from Conan to Tarzan, a mystic division, Wild West stuff, everything a comic-book universe needs. Moore kept going with Supreme and began writing Glory and Youngblood, the female hero and the superteam, to further expand the universe. But it collapsed, as Rob Liefield’s projects have a tendency to do.
From the ashes of Moore’s architectural work on Awesome came America’s Best Comics, his final attempt to launch a line and create a shared universe. Though Moore’s always beaten the drum for creator ownership, an ideal always compromised in comics when you can’t draw, he’s never quite caught up in his thinking. There’s always been that overlying paradigm of work-for-hire, that old school belief that the smart money is in creating characters and then letting other people continue them. He’s failed to understand his own game-changing effect on the industry; the death-blow he dealt to character-as-brand and its replacement with creator-as-brand. ABC was set up to be a series of continuing franchises but that could never happen without Moore writing them all. Nor, ultimately, could he sustain interest in writing a coherent universe. The last ABC Special had America’s Best in, the superteam of title characters, but it was an idea overtaken by the rest of the line. And apart from that team nothing tied together. Promethea and Top Ten each went their own way, developed their own idiosyncratic universes that didn’t easily jibe with their neighbours. Tomorrow Stories revived Moore’s talent for humour. And Tom Strong, the title that had most potential and did a stint as a franchise, was almost nothing but an exercise in universe-building; every issue added more characters, new versions, building up to the multi-part Last Roundup which features all of them. It desperately fires characters and ideas out into the void, willing somebody to grab hold, but never explores the ones it has: Solomon and Pneuman remain as two-dimensional in their last appearances as in their first.
The League was officially part of ABC but wasn’t part of any shared continuity. It quickly developed its own; the picture of the 18th century League appears in the second issue. But it wasn’t until the text travelogue in the second volume that Moore really began to open up his world, to realise that after all his attempt to create fictional universes the largest and most comprehensively stocked of all, the universe of fiction, was waiting for him all along. Inspired by Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton work, which posits a family tree affected by a mysterious meteorite which creates heroes like Doc Savage, Tarzan and The Shadow – a very superheroic retcon to the world of pulp fiction – various writers have delved into this fictional reality. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series of novels is one of the best. And Moore, of course, was doing his own exploration of the lives of fictional characters back in the early 90s with Lost Girls, bringing Alice and Wendy and Dorothy together. But The Black Dossier really runs wild with the concept in a way I’m not aware anyone has before. This isn’t background stuff, cameos, dropping Easter eggs for the well-read to catch. It’s drawing hundreds of years of fictions together to weave a fictional universe, a universe running in parallel to ours, following our history, lashed to us by the invisible ropes of the imagination. And really, in which universe is James Bond the more powerful figure? Ours or theirs?
When LOEG Book Three was announced it looked like a further exploration of that universe: our immortal three, Allan and Mina and Orlando, travelling through the 20th century, battling a single threat in three eras. As readers we’d barely met Orlando, introduced via text travelogue and a fleeting few pages in the Blazing World, so it was a little unbalanced to have him/her as a mainstay. But there were other team members to meet, other eras of fictional history to be synthesised, and a single classic adventure narrative providing propulsion through 99 years. For those readers who’d enjoyed the accomplished literary acrobatics of The Black Dossier – it’s still my favourite League story – then Century seemed a pretty straightforward idea.
But it didn’t turn out that way. 1910 introduced a League we’d heard of, our trio plus Carnacki and Raffles, but gave them short shrift; they accomplish nothing except to inadvertently create the Antichrist they’ll fight in future. They don’t seem cohesive, they don’t function well, and the new members don’t get a lot of depth to their characters. Instead the majority of the book is given over to the subplot which becomes a climax of Janni Nemo, Jenny Diver, the daughter of Nemo and what drives her to become his heir. She begins the story, she’s the character taken on a journey through this Edwardian age, and she fulfils the apocalyptic visions of Carnacki at the end. It’s a narrative bait-and-switch, clearly signposted as such, but a little disorienting when the foe that the League is supposed to be battling hasn’t been conceived as a concept, let alone in the flesh. And, for the first time in the comic, there isn’t really a sense of the era. The Threepenny Opera is cutely rewritten and reinterpreted to suit the plot, but plot is all it is. 1910 isn’t far from the Victorians, but it had its own concerns; the strange, dying Liberal England, the addressing of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of mechanisation, the gathering stormclouds of European war, the Suffragettes. (And, speaking of Suffragettes, 1910 was also when a certain magical nanny first visits the Banks family at Cherry Tree Lane. A good opportunity for a cameo, given later events.)
1969 has a much more traditional structure: the core team of three, a single villain, a plot and incidental characters aligned with that villain. The songs of 1910 are delivered by singers, keeping the musical thread but subsuming it within the plot. The dovetailing of Performance, Brian Jones, Jack Carter and The Villain, all aimed at the Hyde Park gig, works in that admirably neat Alan Moore way both for the plot and thematically. It captures the end of the Sixties, the bubbling dangerous newness of it all, and makes it distinct from the events around the Black Dossier just 11 years earlier. And the League have their own journey to make; Mina’s struggle for relevance, her chafing against immortality, and where it leads her. It’s the least problematic and for me it’s the standout chapter of Century, traditionalist though that appears to make me.
And then there’s 2009. Probably the worst-received Alan Moore comic in some years, though perhaps Neonomicon, released the year before, could give it a run for its money. It begins with a gulf between it and the audience: Moore knows more than us about the Victorian fictions, the Edwardian, the 1950s and the 1960s. His references overwhelm and dazzle the average reader, sending us running for Jess Nevins’s remarkable annotations and puffing up our chests when we spot a few. But not in the 21st century. Here we’re all experts on the pop culture and seeding an entertainment with hundreds of half-hidden references is just another episode of Family Guy. We all know what Moore’s putting in; worse, we know what he’s leaving out. Everyone has their favourites, their allegiances which they’d like to see given the nod. And most of us know more of popular culture than the Northampton hermit. In that sense, 2009 had lost before it started; a comic about the era of sampling and mash-ups written by a man more interested in any previous century couldn’t meet audience expectations by stitching the vectors of the time neatly together.
The plot is oddly shaped. Beginning with Orlando solo, the only member of the League still functioning, it unexpectedly swerves with the introduction of Emma Peel and James Bond from The Black Dossier leaping from that book into this. There’d been no reference to Peel or Bond in 1969, much closer in years to the previous adventure, but she’s back and being offered eternal life. That comes out of nowhere, a plot contrivance without a purpose in this volume; M and Orlando are getting on well anyway, there seems every chance that the former would help anyway, and then Lando drops the immortality bomb. It’s the second of five out-of-nowhere incongruities in 2009, the first being M’s unexpected reappearance. The parking of Mina in an asylum and her return to active duty is a clumsy piece of plotting; there must have been more interesting things for her to do in 40 years than be put on ice, especially as much the same has happened to Allan with opiate addiction substituted for madness. And then there’s Harry Potter.
The third thing that comes out of nowhere: Moore’s statement, put in Mina’s mouth, about the degradation of culture. It doesn’t sit well in the middle of a work that doesn’t seem too knowledgeable much about the cultural life of its era. Looking at the books, movies, TV etc of 2009 gives us the usual mix; no, perhaps the year when Avatar broke box-office records and Transformers 2 was the summer blockbuster wasn’t exceptional, but there’s more going on than the headlines. The statement rankled with a lot of readers; it rankled with me. Yet while I disagree with Moore generally it’s hard to argue on the specifics. The postmodern era does, through Victorian eyes, seem lacking in originality. Movies based on toys from 30 years ago that were created by members of the Marvel Bullpen as a quick cash-in-hand job, music that raps over a tune that was a hit before the rapper was born, sequels and prequels and reboots. Though if that’s the core of the critique, it needs noting that the League itself is a mash-up as rich in samples as Paul’s Boutique.
But it’s especially hard to disagree with Moore about Harry Potter. Like most I have a general benevolence toward the franchise, despite giving up before the end of the first book and only watching the first two films because I was forced to. (Two years running by the same friend.) But, when examined, there’s no defence against the charge that they’re just warmed-up, comforting, boarding-school clichés, aren’t they? They revel in their construction from bits of other stories, the embrace of unchallenging unoriginality that makes them slip down so easily, frictionless because they tread such a smoothworn path. Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch?, written in 1979 and one of my childhood favourites, does far more interesting things with the magical neophyte and his cruel upbringing than Potter manages. It might be hard for me to see that nice Harry Potter who does so much to get kids reading as the Antichrist, but he’s undeniably banal.
At the climax of 2009 Allan Quatermain dies, sick of adventure. Which is the fourth of those out-of-nowhere things. The appearance of Mary Poppins is the ultimate one, of course, a textbook deus ex machina, but I liked that jack-in-the-box quality to it, the ultimate corrective to the ultimate naughty boy. Allan’s change of heart is far more troubling, an offence against character that can’t be explained. Sick of adventure since when? It brought him back to himself in the first two volumes of the League and every time we saw him in the 20th century he seemed to be thriving on it. His relationship with Mina, their eternal love, was built on adventure. It doesn’t fit. And his death seems of a piece with the recruitment of Emma Peel, the constituting of a new League for a new adventure beyond this volume. As with 1910, too much of what we see is in the service of other stories that we haven’t seen yet. Part of Moore’s accessibility is in his neatness, the clockwork of it. It’s not an offence to not be neat, but it hurts Century that its messiness, the cogs without purpose, are because of a bigger picture that we’ve not seen.
Oddly it was Heart of Ice, the first League comic without the League in (and without their name on) that crystallised the project for me. It made sense of Century like a lens snapping into place during an eye test. It’s an accomplished and a complete story, even if it retreads the Antarctic journey of Nemo in a way Moore’s specifically disavowed any interest in doing. It picks up the theme of being sick of adventure and makes it work. With Kane, Swift and the Edisonades – a whole genre I confess I’d never even heard of – there’s a clear sense of the times, even if we’re far from the heart of the age. It doesn’t have much of a relationship to the events of Century, apart from picking up Janni’s story and laying the ground for her grandson’s page in 2009. It’s discrete. But its very existence shows the shape of the future of this comic and explains the shape of Century. We’re back to the universe, a whole cosmos of fictions waiting to be elaborated on, dynasties growing and changing alongside new entries, and there’s only one creative team to tell them. To go back to my opening analogy, the saga of the DC universe, a story told by hundreds and hundreds of writers and artists in tens of thousands of pages over 75 years, is now being told by one writer and one artist in one title, one series of graphic novels. So it’s going to be unwieldy at times. It’s going to change direction unexpectedly, to throw stuff in there which doesn’t pay off immediately, to meander and accelerate and confuse and confound. The end point, the vantage from which the narratives click together to form a neat whole in that characteristic Moore way, might be years down the line. It might never happen.
The big idea Moore brought to comics was finality, closure. Watchmen ended. V For Vendetta ended. The ABC universe ended. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for the first time in its writer’s life, is a project without an end, which will continue as long as the creators and owners want to do it. Which makes it a storytelling departure in the short-term and the long-term. It can be hard getting used to. But it’s an exciting prospect, that I began reading about these guys 14 years ago and may still be reading about them, anticipating new volumes, wondering where the dropped hints will be going, in 2027. I’ll settle for that.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book III: Century, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, was published in the volumes 1910, 1969 and 2009, all of which are still in print. A collection is expected.