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The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier
Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
America's Best Comics hardcover £19.99

review by Patrick Hudson

I had not intended to buy a copy of this book. I'd looked at it, and having enjoyed the previous volumes in the series, I was tempted, but the relatively high price tag for the hardcover (�20) had put me off. It's not that I think it's over-priced - it's an attractive hardback with a clever use of different paper types and even 3D, a complex production that uses the format to the full. That's one of the great things about the ageing audience for comics - they can afford these kinds of big-budget productions, but I'm a family man these days, and I can't really afford to just spring �20 - think of the children! However, as it turned out, it was because of my children that I ended up buying this book.

Those expecting a review can skip down a few paragraphs while I tell the story of an Alan Moore-ish kind of a day. I was in town with my kids at the beginning of February, making my monthly trip to the comics' shop (Gosh, on Great Russell Street) when I discovered them in a whirl unusual even for the high-energy world of comics retailing. For on that day, there was to be a rare signing by none other than comics' genius and the man regarded by many as the greatest living Englishman, Alan Moore.

I've been following the work of Alan Moore since the early 1980s when he became the first ever comics' writer whose contribution I really noticed for his work in 2000 AD. As the years went by, I tracked him down through various Marvel UK projects, Marvel Man and V For Vendetta in Warrior, Swamp Thing for DC, and then Watchmen, when he became global property and rather than a slightly sad comics nerd I was an early adopter of a guy who 'knew the score'. I've continued to follow his work, and so was very keen to shake hands with the great man!

Anyway, back in 2008, outside of Gosh, a queue was already forming at 12.30 for a 2 pm start. Having made our regular purchases, we went off for some lunch and a play then came back at three to see how the queue was looking. It didn't really seem to have moved at all, just grown longer at the end, and I joined, although my heart was sinking, as queues and small children don't mix well. After 20 minutes we were all getting cold and the kids were playing in the traffic. As much as I'd like to meet Alan Moore, I thought, I probably couldn't justify getting a child run over for it, and we went to look at the head of the queue and see if we could spot the great man, just so we could say we'd seen him. However, such were the cold-kissed faces of my children that the group at the front took pity on us and suggested we take position at the front of the queue! I'm English enough to have protested, but when the first dozen or so people all joined in, I seized the opportunity! "It's what Alan would want!" they insisted.

And thus, several minutes later we found ourselves ushered into the presence of the great man. When I told him what had happened, he genially confirmed that it was, indeed, what he would want and turned a twinkling eye on the children, terrifying my daughter. Officially, he was signing copies of the newly released Lost Girls, �35, and not something I wanted to have to explain to the kids on the train home, and so I snagged a copy of Black Dossier, which is now inscribed "To Patrick, Louis and Isabella with love and best wishes, Alan Moore."

Alan meets the Hudsons

I've never been a huge lover of books, the objects. It's what's inside that's always been my main concern, and once digested I'm happy to cast them aside - it's a necessity, in fact, lest your home turn into a brick box filled to the brim with books. But like all of our possessions they accrete their own associations, almost as if we write memories on them. I've got few signed books for exactly this reason - each one marks a time I've met someone or been out somewhere interesting - readings by Will Self and J.G. Ballard, meeting William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, and interviewing Kim Newman in Islington, the two separate occasions that I went to readings by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson and they separately signed my copy of The Difference Engine. It's part and parcel, I think, of the fascination (magically) or fixation (psychiatrically) that the serious reader entertains over books and writers.

I'm reviewing Black Dossier, then - and at last we come to the point of all this - as a fan of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and of Alan Moore, a big enough fan to stand in the cold wondering which of my children will be first to die beneath the wheels of car. It's a different prospect from reviewing a first novel, or someone you're only passingly familiar with. A single work becomes part of a larger narrative, one that stretches back through the past and into the future. We let them inside our heads to do what they will, and when they treat us well they earn something more than respect, something that can border on almost religious awe. Perhaps that is why we go in search of relics.

This marks Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's third foray into the world of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series begun in 1999. Mina Murray and Alan Quartermain contrive to steal 'The Black Dossier' from the secret services, a file detailing all the extant information on the League's previous incarnations and what is known of the Murray group. The theft of the Dossier, and the pursuit of Alan and Mina by the operatives of the secret service - a womanising spy called Jimmy, a leathery, aged Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond and the daughter of a murdered industrialist Miss Night (apparently Emma Peel, although I had to cheat and look this one up on the Internet). The storyline itself is rather slight - a picaresque chase through a droll backdrop of a Britain just coming out of a long period of oppression under the social experiment of 'IngSoc', a pastiche of 1984 - the main thrust of the work, though, is a history of the League throughout history.

Interspersed with regular comics pages are text pieces, familiar from the earlier versions. As with those, Moore and O'Neill have worked hard on the text and page design to create rich pastiches of their targets, such as the Shakespeare play describing the establishment of the first League under the Duke of Milan, also known as John Suttle and later Prospero, a 1950s' British historical comic describing the life of Orlando, an extract from The New Adventures Of Fanny Hill and various old maps, spurious official documents and even a series of postcards sent by Alan and Mina on their fantastical travels.

When I reviewed volume two of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I mentioned how it seemed to that the initial appearance of the League was like a by-product of From Hell, the lighter side of Victoriana compared to From Hell's dark underbelly. When I look at Black Dossier, I can't help but see echoes of Lost Girls. While not an erotic work in the same way as Lost Girls, it seems to be focused on sexual issues in a way that the two preceding stories were not. A number of the supporting characters here have an ostentatiously sexual nature - the poly-sexual Orlando, the harlot Fanny Hill and the murderous rapist agent 'Jimmy', clearly a copyright evading portrayal of James Bond. Mina and Alan Quartermain are now long-term lovers, and their relationship is shown to be vigorously physical (thanks to the fountain of youth, since Mina is now over sixty and Quartermain nearly a century old), and the IngSoc pornographic anti-sex propaganda pamphlet is exactly as crazed as it sounds.

These contrasting depictions of sexuality are a persistent theme, but as with all Moore's best work, Black Dossier works on several levels. At it's most basic, it's a continuation and development of the work of the other two volumes, not much different in this respect from other continuing comics' series. As in the previous volumes, Moore makes some political points, although they are as broad as the source material and perhaps just an artefact of the thrillery plot. It's endlessly inventive, as before, and will keep the sleuths at wikipedia busy for months to come.

There is more to come, however. The volumes three, four and five are planned and being prepared. Black Dossier itself is not counted in the sequence, as it's mostly background material rather than a compelling story in it's own right, and familiarity with the previous volumes is strongly recommended. It expands the League's continuity, filling out some of the hints dropped in earlier volumes in an effort to create from whole cloth the richer texture that comes from the decades of continuity built up by the Big Two. As early as Watchmen, he was using additional material to create these worlds, but his masterstroke was using characters and places from the worlds of pop and pulp fiction. As well as the thrill of inter-textual miscegenation (the trio of Drummond, Jimmy, and Miss Night in this volume, for example), it's a train spotters delight tracking down every obscure reference. If you've already enjoyed these in the previous stories in the series, you'll enjoy this one, too.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

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