Sunday, 23 June 2013

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Black Dossier was the first true sign that Alan Moore was going to do more with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than just make them a Victorian era Justice League. It’s set decades after the original two books in the series, with the League having become a thing of the past and its two remaining heroes, along with series newcomer Orlando, off having adventures of their own.

For a while Black Dossier was hard to come by in Britain. The concept of plucking fictional characters from their original works and dropping them into a shared universe was fine for Victorian creations because their rights are all public domain, available for anyone to use. Doing the same thing for creations of the thirties, forties and later is trickier because of copyright laws. In particular there were some issues regarding the appearance of James Bond.

I’m unaware of exactly how the issue was sorted out. I find it hard to believe that either party backed down. Clearly something happened though, because Black Dossier is now as readily available through the usual comic book channels as anything else.

As with the original two volumes of the series one of the best things about Black Dossier is the world building. Much of this takes place, rather cleverly, during lulls in the plot that see Mina and-or Allan settling down to read the titular Dossier. It’s essentially a collection of stories, propaganda pieces, documents, diaries, and even postcards that flesh out the world of the League into a thoroughly believable fictional setting.

This level of detail regarding the background and backdrop is far more impressive than the plot itself. The story is basically a lengthy series of captures and escapes, interspersed with the lulls and bouts of action. It holds together very well, but without the world being so interesting I have a feeling Black Dossier would be a frightfully dull affair.

The number of ideas on display is staggering. We discover that the literary golden age of sci-fi that we experienced resulted in rocket travel, hover cars, and robots being commonplace in the League world; there was a Orwellian dictatorship government that sprang up in 1948 (the year Nineteen Eighty Four was published); William Shakespeare was a favoured playwright of the first faerie queen of Britain; and there were other attempts at forming a League following the incarnation seen in the original series. These are my personal highlights. There are plenty more in what was a very inventive book. Of course there are the less obvious visual references too and probably plenty I’ve missed, but that’s part of the fun.

Black Dossier’s format difference is largely due to the fact that it wasn’t originally intended as a follow-up to the first two volumes. Moore originally intended to write out the information in a more conventional manner, strictly for his own use. He decided to turn it into a published work when he became overcome with guilt (or something to that effect) at putting Kevin O’Neill out of work. This is an actual statement made by Moore. He didn’t touch on O’Neill’s ability to work elsewhere. Perhaps it didn’t occur to him.

Black Dossier doesn’t quite hit the same heights as the first two entries in the series but that’s not the worst thing in the world. The standard was set incredibly high and a slip was going to happen sooner or later. While the plot isn’t quite as rich this book is a triumph when it comes to fleshing out the incredibly dense history and nature of the League of the Extraordinary Gentlemen universe. That’s Alan Moore’s greatest strength as a writer, and this is a shining example.

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