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The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 2
Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil
Titan paperback £9.99
review by Patrick Hudson
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen pushes Alan Moore's explorations of pop-culture heroes back about as far as possible, without getting into mythopoeic Neil Gaiman territory, to where it all began in the Victorian pulps. It is a strange companion piece to From Hell, Moore's grim investigation into the causes and effects of the 'Jack the Ripper' murders in the 1890s. Researching that book, he immersed himself in Victoriana, as described in its extensive notes, and it must surely be from this that the League grew.
If From Hell is an examination of the grim reality of lower class life in Victorian Britain, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen turns its attention to the imagination of the bourgeois. The characters in the League were among the first to be served by industrial processes of manufacture and distribution of popular magazines; the first to benefit from growing literacy; the first to emerge from the realm of folklore into the new regime of intellectual property. This process led eventually to (among other things) the comics we know today, and Moore cleverly recasts the characters as contemporary superheroes, and their previous incarnations take the place of 'secret origin' stories.
Moore has selected a group that is at once obscure, and yet strikingly familiar. We know the names, and yet they seem remote from us now except through movies on daytime TV and perhaps the memory of a children's abridged version or dusty edition on a grandparents' bookshelf. In many ways, each member of the League stands in for a subgenre of popular fiction. Nemo and his super-sub represent the early hard-SF gizmo fanaticism of Jules Verne; Quartermain comes from the original Boy's Own adventurer H. Rider Haggard; Mr Hyde comes from Robert Louis Stephenson's drug parable melodrama; Hawley Griffin, the eponymous Invisible Man from H.G. Wells' seminal social science fiction; and Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's defining work of post-romantic gothic horror, Dracula. These characters (and the authors that created them) established many of the roots of contemporary genre fiction. The only person missing from the roster, in fact, is Sherlock Holmes, but Moore makes Doyle's presence felt without using Holmes himself, perhaps an acknowledgement that the 'world's greatest detective' is somewhat more shop-worn than the alternatives that presented themselves.
Moore established his cast in the first volume, and this second part sees them come up against an even greater menace as they are swept up in the events described by H.G. Wells in The War Of The Worlds. Moore knits the progress of the story into the events of the novel, fitting it into the gaps left by Wells with his usual precision.
Moore's collaborator on the series is Kevin O'Neil, a British comics artist whose work goes back to the early days of 2000 AD. He is perhaps best known as the co-creator of Nemesis The Warlock, and for his work on Martial Law (both with Pat Mills), but it is always his work on the brilliant Ro-Busters robot revolution sequence from 2000 AD (again with Pat Mills) that sticks in my mind. O'Neil has a great imagination that fills pages with amazing creatures and machinery. His visions of the steampunk cityscapes of London and Paris in volume one are remarkably detailed and inventive, and big set pieces, such as the train crash in part four of volume two or the revelation of Fu Manchu's airship at the end of part three of volume one, are incredibly vivid and cinematically breathtaking.
Unlike several of his contemporaries he didn't find significant favour in traditional American superhero comics, and I wonder if this is because of his approach to figure work. His distinctive, cartoony style of drawing people is more comfortable with quirky characters than with American-style musclemen. In this regard, he struggles with some of the action here, crucially with Hyde who, while suitably menacing at rest, looks stiff and unnatural when called upon to wreak mayhem.
When he hits the mark, however, the results can be stunning. The first part of this volume - set entirely on the Mars of John Carter and Gulliver Jones - is superbly realised. His Martian war machines are elegant and threatening, and he depicts the destruction they cause in London with ghastly verve. He deploys his cartoonier figure work to good effect in the many crowd scenes, creating individuals who go convincingly about their business fleeing the Martian horror. On the whole this book has a gloomier palate than the previous volume, but O'Neil provides a refreshing counterpoint in the scenes where Mina and Quartermain approach Nutwood Forest (yes, that Nutwood Forest).
In many ways, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is reminiscent of Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Both take near-forgotten non-comics genres - in Hellboy's case, the weird horror pulps - and recast them as contemporary superhero comics. Hellboy seems to have an eye for the long-term, however, while The League... is very much a closed-ended piece. There is also a strong similarity to Philip Jose Farmer's 'Wold Newton' books, which outline the careers of Doc Savage and Tarzan. The twisted genealogy that relates these two takes in many of the heroes of the Victorian era, including most of the League. Another British fantasy writer, Kim Newman, plays a very similar game to Moore in his Anno Dracula series. The first volume covers almost the same period as The League, but Newman's perspective is broader and deeper than Moore's work here. The extension of the Anno Dracula series into the 1950s and 1960s and beyond makes it a kind of chronicle of the century, a 'Dance to the Music of Time' for the popular imagination.
In relation to the first volume, perhaps volume two does suffer a little from sequelitis. Moore had novelty on his side first time out, and here, there is a slight sense of familiarity. It is not quite as satisfying as the previous volume, the delicious centre of the whole thing having already been consumed. However, Moore is keen to push the story forward and if the first volume set them up then here Moore proceeds to knock them down, and by the end, the League's membership is dead or dispersed. Despite the promise in the final caption of the final panel "There now follows an intermission," this seems a rather final appearance for these extraordinary gentlemen.
However, this may not be the end of the story. Moore has hinted of further groups at different times in the past, opening up the possibility of pre- or post-Victorian Leagues. In this volume, he picks up on various hints dropped in volume one regarding earlier incarnations and expands on this describing two earlier Leagues - one led by Prospero (or The Duke of Milan) from The Tempest, the other by Lemuel Gulliver from Gulliver's Travels - in a long text piece at the back (originally serialised with the comics).
It outlines some of the travels of these earlier groups, and of Mina after the events of the second volume, describes many more fictional locations from fantastic literature. It's a suitably droll affair, but in a large chunk like this somewhat lacks the appeal of the more-manageable few pages at the back of each comic when the series was first released. The usual titbits of cover art, promo pages and odd and ends fill out this nicely produced volume from Titan, which includes some amusing back cover blurb. More fun can be had by following the trial of references that Moore leaves at Jess Nevin's online notes here, or by referring to the published version Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Guide To The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
If you had the misfortune to see the movie, forget that. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an affectionate troll through Imperial British pop-culture. It's Moore having fun, rather than Moore being serious, and so it's not as deep as some of his other work, but there's genuine scholarship in his exhaustive knowledge of the material and insight in his treatment of it.
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