Sunday, 17 March 2013

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen famously came about after Alan Moore had asked himself, over a morning snake-spell, what a Victorian Era Justice League would have been like. Superman, Batman and the Green Lantern were emphatically not the characters he had in mind when asking this. Moore was more interested in how fictional creations of the time would have interacted had they all existed within one metafictional universe (or story) and come together to form a group.

Plucked from the 19th century are Wilhelmina Murray (of Dracula fame), aged explorer Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, scientist Dr Jekyll (along with the other fella you get one using him), and isolationist submariner Captain Nemo. Murray fashions them into an ill-functioning team to combat two threats to Britain, and the world, across two six issue series. The first series details a plot by Fu Manchu to attack Britain from the skies. The second sees an invasion by the Martians from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Going off of these first paragraphs League of Extraordinary Gentlemen could sound like a simple reworking of various plots and characters. It’s not. Moore remains true to the spirit of the original material he calls upon and blends the characters seamlessly into a story that is wholly his own. League (as it is routinely shortened to) is an original work inspired by literature.

One crucial thing to note about the series is that it’s not necessary to have read or even be familiar with any of the characters Moore uses. To this day I’ve not read Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of their comic book appearance here. I wasn’t even aware of the heroine’s name in Dracula. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment either.

Yet there’s enough substance in Moore’s writing to be able to tell that the characters are being portrayed in a true fashion. Occasionally a sentence will crop up that seems incongruous, such as a reference to Dr Jekyll’s transformations originally making him smaller (included because that’s what happened in Stevenson’s novel). There are plenty of references of this kind, and there’s always a deal of satisfaction in understanding on, a knack I have more with later volumes set in periods I’m more familiar with. But as I say, it doesn’t spoil things for the rest of us.

The books are famed for being populated with bit part characters plucked from works of the period. Not knowing their origins doesn’t detract from the read. You’ll feel proud at spotting something but if you don’t notice a particular reference the book still stands up and makes sense in its own right.

Artist Kevin O’Neill is just as responsible for the series’ success as Moore. His artistic style is not something that lends itself to lengthy action sequences or broad shouldered heroes but is a perfect fit for a series that demands dozens of hidden details crammed onto each page. The almost sketch-like quality of O’Neill’s work (harsh, jagged lines are the order of the day) coupled with the subject matter gives the book a feel that no other comic has ever had.

It should also be noted that it’s Sullivan who includes most of the fictional figures who appear in crowd scenes. This is something that grows more prevalent in later volumes as the creators find their feet with the series. This is understandable. Moore is known for many things but an intimate knowledge of pop culture isn’t among them.

The first and second volumes are also notable for the extra material included in them. The first book includes a newly spun tale of Quatermain and paintings based on The Picture of Dorian Gray. The second volume features my favourite extra of the series: detailed accounts of Moore’s metafictional world, continent by continent. The amount of research, planning and thought that must have gone into these pages alone is staggering. It’s written in the style of a guide and is one of the series’ greatest triumphs.

The world of the League is such a simple idea it’s surprising nobody else had really done it before. It’s good that they didn’t though: Moore packs so much into his books, undertaking hefty amounts of research in order to make his work as accurate and authentic as possible, that it’s likely nobody else could have done the series justice in quite the same way. The level of detail speaks to the author’s love and enjoyment of literature. He is astonishingly well read, and it’s allowed him to construct what I believe is his greatest work.

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