Wednesday, 10 June 2020

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

In 2019, legendary comic writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill completed the two decade long odyssey of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Over 20 years, the sassy Brits brought new and enduring attention to the genre of Retro-Victorian Science Fiction through an encyclopedic pastiche of European fiction. Main plots tied together such diverse works as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain, Dracula, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, Princess of Mars, Gulliver's Travels, The Time Machine, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Orlando: A Biography, 1984, Doctor Who, The Avengers (the British television series), Mary Poppins, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Lost World, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter, and The Tempest. Something of a literary arms race developed between Moore and scholar Jess Nevins, who maintained an online set of annotations listing the references replete in virtually every panel. Sometimes high and sometimes low, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a paean to the wonder of imagination and the glories of literature.

The epic began in 1999 with the publication of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I. The six-issue series by America's Best Comics (an Alan Moore vanity label published by Wildstorm Comics, which was itself a subsidiary of DC Comics) was one of the highlights in the explosion of Retro-Victorian Science Fiction around the turn of the 21st century. That same year, Wild Wild West and Disney's Tarzan both entered movie theatres. They were preceded and followed by Back to the Future Part III (1990), The City of Lost Children (1995), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002), The Difference Engine (1990), Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (1992) and its sequel Dinotopia: The World Beneath (1995), Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland and Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (2000) and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993), and the Sakura Wars video game franchise. It was an embarrassment of riches unmatched since, and I credit League of Extraordinary Gentlemen specifically with catalyzing my then-diffuse interest in the genre that has since consumed my life.

In the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, British Intelligence under the leadership of a mysterious "M" enlists the aid of Mina Murray, Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll (with Mr. Hyde, of course), and the Invisible Man to prevent a Chinese crimelord (called only "The Doctor" for copyright reasons) from obtaining the anti-gravity metal Cavorite from The First Men in the Moon. The intelligent, literary, and plain fun series was a smash success with both comic readers and fans of Scientific Romances, begetting a second six-issue volume in 2002 and a maligned feature film in 2003.

The less said about the feature film, the better. Despite being the first cinematic representation of Captain Nemo as an Indian, it largely missed the appeal of the comic series to present a mismatch of recognizable characters (including Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray) as a superhero team in a bold, dumb, action movie. Moore washed his hands of any connection to the film and making it was so negative that star actor Sean Connery retired from Hollywood. Far more intelligent takes on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen idea were the first seasons of the Showtime-produced Penny Dreadful and the ABC/Disney-produced Once Upon a Time. The former television series focused on horror characters from Frankenstein, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the 1941 Universal film The Wolf Man, while the latter thrust an ensemble of fairy tale characters into the modern day, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rumplestiltskin, Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, Cinderella, the Mad Hatter, and Beauty and the Beast. 

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen continued apace in comic form. In the second volume, the League reunites to fight the Martians, who had been driven off Mars by the armies assembled by John Carter and Gullivar Jones. Unfortunately the battle takes its violent and emotional toll on the team, reducing them to the now coupled Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain.

The story through the first two volumes are a fairly straightforward clandestine spy tale with character moments examining the meaning of man and monster, and the British Empire's willingness to sacrifice principle for pragmatism.  "The sole idea we’d started out with," said Moore, "was that a Victorian super-hero team of previously existing characters might be something fun to work on." Much of League's appeal came from the inventive ways in which Moore and O'Neill mixed, matched, linked, and reinterpreted the classic literary characters. For example, in the second volume, British Intelligence sends Murray and Quatermain to meet with Dr. Moreau to pick up a mysterious package that will be instrumental in the fight with the Martians. They find him deep in a forest of at least 100 acres, living with his latest creations. Among them are Mr. Toad and Rupert the Bear. Grotesque, but nonetheless amusing in the audacity of its grotesquery. That is probably an apt description of much of Moore's output, especially in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Another part of League's appeal was owed to its presentation. Each issue was formatted like a Victorian magazine, complete with supplementary literary features that expanded the world of League and a bevy of original and fabricated advertising. One of those ads lead to one of the most infamous incidents in comic book history. Issue #5 of volume one was pulled from comic shelves and reprinted due to a legitimate 19th century ad for "Marvel Whirling Spray"... a feminine hygiene product that DC Comics interpreted (probably correctly) as a direct insult to their chief competitor, Marvel Comics. By sheer fluke I happened to find that same ad in an online magazine archive and placed it in the sidebar of this blog as a tribute. In fact, my entire sidebar of real and fabricated advertising is an homage to League

The last volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to be published under Wildstorm/DC Comics was the divisive Black Dossier. Rather than a full comic, The Black Dossier was a collection of illustrated and written stories, pamphlets, ephemera, and even a 3D section that built up the background world of League up to the 1950's and the wake of the Big Brother regime. Mina and Allan, now rogue agents, are attempting to swipe the eponymous document of League history from British Intelligence, being hotly pursued by a young James Bond and Emma Peel. It was also very indulgent of two of Alan Moore's preoccupations: occultism and perversion. 

It's hard to tell when Moore is pushing sexuality out of his own appetites or if he's just trying to see how far he can push readers (especially when it comes to depictions of sexual violence, which have been heavily criticized by people who forget the rule of audacious grotesquery). One of The Black Dossier's most memorable inclusions is a satirical 1984-based pamphlet showing frustrated, awkward sex as a futile rebellion against Big Brother. In his personal life, Moore had a polyamorous relationship with his wife Phyllis and their lover Deborah until they both left him in the early 1990's, taking his daughters with them. This is reflected from The Black Dossier onwards in the three-way polyamorous relationship between Mina Murray, the gender-switching Orlando, and Allan Quatermain, who suffice it to say has departed from his literary counterpart. 

His fascination with occultism is more transparent and Moore identifies as a ceremonial magician. In 1996, he released the performance art CD The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels with musicians Tim Perkins and David J as an auditory occultic "working." But in 1983, Moore and David J released The March of the Sinister Ducks, so suffice it to say that Moore is a weird guy.

The Black Dossier links together the world of writing, imagination, and magic. He has been quoted as saying "I believe that magic is art, and that art, whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form, is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness ... Indeed to cast a spell is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people's consciousness, and this is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman." Without inviting debate on the legitimacy of such views, they are expressed in The Black Dossier, which culminates in Murray, Quatermain, and Orlando reaching Prospero's "Blazing World." Based on The Blazing World, a 1666 Utopian satire by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, it becomes in Moore's hands the magical realm where the enduring characters of literature abide.

The three-part League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century was released between 2009 and 2012, following directly from the themes laid out in The Black Dossier and laying them out as a more definite narrative. Part one takes place in 1910, with a running theme drawn from Threepenny Opera. Nemo is on his deathbed and his daughter Janni (under the pseudonym Jenny Diver) has absconded to London to learn the hard way why he hates humanity so much. Meanwhile, the League learn of an apocalyptic plot by Oliver Haddo (W. Somerset Maugham's transparent analogy for Aleister Crowley from his novel The Magician) to bring about the Antichrist.

The second part takes place in 1969, in the late-Sixties world of sex, rock and roll, and psychedelics. It suffers both as a middle chapter (as middle chapters in a trilogy often do) and from Moore's lax command of Sixties fiction. It picks up in the final chapter, set in 2009, when Mina, Orlando, and Allan reunite to face down the Antichrist. Their quest leads them to the devastated subspace of Britain's "mythic dreamtime" accessible via a magical gateway between platforms 9 and 10 at King's Cross Station. In this ruined landscape "constructed out of reassuring imagery from the 1940s" - where trains operate "like a child's idea of how a train ought to work" and its magical principles are "sloppily-defined" - a querulous author audaciously reflects on modern children's literature and the impoverishment of imagination, culminating in an apocalyptic final battle between Mary Poppins and Harry Potter (apparently never having read the derivative, mean-spirited sequels by P.L. Travers). 

After Century, Moore and O'Neill returned to form with the Nemo Trilogy. Three hardcover issues published from 2013 to 2015 focus on Captain Nemo's daughter, who has now taken up his mantle as the warlord of the seas. In Nemo: Heart of Ice, the team of former boy inventors Frank Reade Jr., Tom Swift, and Jack Wright pursue Janni Nemo to Antarctic in 1925 at the behest of Charles Foster Kane, after the pirate stole the treasured belongings of his guest, Ayesha. Of course, the Antarctic in the 1920's is a bad place to be for anyone familiar with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin, set in 1941, picks up the fight between Janni Nemo and Ayesha in the Berlin Metropolis at the height of Adenoid Hynkel's (Charlie Chaplin's alter ego in The Great Dictator) fascist regime. Nemo must rescue her own daughter Hira and son-in-law Armand Robur from Rotwang's robot Maria and Dr. Caligari's Sleeptroopers. Finally The Lost World and Creature from the Black Lagoon enter the canon in Nemo: River of Ghosts, when 80-year old Janni takes a final journey up the Amazon in 1975 to defeat Ayesha and Hynkel's regime once and for all, while meditating upon her own life's journey under the shadow of her father and her destiny.

The Nemo Trilogy was much more enthusiastically received for its return to the format of the first two volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Moore's sex and occultism is an acquired taste, but pastiche of fictional characters imaginatively recombined is much more straightforward and accessible. Each issue's self-contained story exposed different aspects of League's world, from Edisonades and Lovecraftian fiction in the first to German Expressionist film in the second to revisionist jungle adventure in the third.

The entire saga, and the careers of Moore and O'Neill, culminate in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: Tempest. Released in 2019, this volume marks Moore and O'Neill's exeunt from the comic book industry... An industry that Moore has becoming ever-increasingly critical of over the decades, and not without warrant. This criticism undergirds The Tempest, especially as it pertains to the current state of superhero comics.

"I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying," said Moore, writer of Batman: The Killing Joke, The Watchmen, and Swamp Thing, in a 2016 interview. "While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum." And in a 2014 interview he said of the superhero movie phenomenon that "It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times."

How these sentiments reflect in and on The Tempest is complicated, even contradictory. A central thread in The Tempest is the proliferation of superheroes in the 1950's and on. Captain Marvel (the actual Captain Marvel, renamed SHAZAM to distinguish it from Marvel Comics' version) and Plastic Man make appearances in a seniors' home for superheroes whose franchise owners refuse to let die. Moore even put in the legwork to find public domain British superhero characters he could work into a team of his own creation: Captain Universe, Zom of the Zodiac, Marsman, Satin Astro, and others, forming the Seven Stars, Mina's 1950's superhero version of the League. The plot revolves around the attempt of Satin Astro, a fugitive from the future, to avert an apocalyptic catastrophe in 2010 that spirals the solar system into dystopian tyranny.

Her race against time brings her back in touch with Mina and Orlando, who have taken a rejuvenated Emma Peel under their wing. Unfortunately, the original James Bond also finds the rejuvenating pool of Ayesha used by Mina, Orlando, and Emma. Emerging as his youthful and vigorous self, he becomes the new M, and launches nuclear attacks on both the pool and the Blazing World. This attack brings down the wrath of the Blazing World and its fairie queen, unleashing the horrors of humanity's collective nightmares upon the world... King Kong, the Werewolves of London, all the terrors imagined in folklore, Poe, and Lovecraft.

The Tempest is a densely packed volume. Not only is it treading Moore's critique of superheroes and the state of modern culture, not only is it commenting upon humanity's apparent inability to imagine positive futures for itself (as evidenced by the garbage of what passes for Star Trek in the wake of J.J. Abrams 2009 film), and not only is it wrapping up 20 years of plot threads from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it is also a paean to comics in form as well as substance. Though some individual issues are more straightforward than others, there are entire stretches where every two-page spread is done in the style of a different comic. One has "Farewells Aren't Forever," four three-panel newspaper comics about James Bond plotting destruction with his J-series agents (who resemble Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig). Another is "Little Mina in Blazingland," in the style of Winsor McCay. Yet another is in the style of the British periodical Beano. Sir John Tenniel's knife-wielding ghost in The Nemesis of Neglect becomes an EC-style horror comic host for a few pages. Towards the end of the volume, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill write themselves into a wedding scene, in homage to the famous wedding of Sue Storm and Reed Richards in Fantastic Four Annual #3.  The follow-up feature to this volume is a black-and-white comic about the Seven Stars, on a 1950's adventure that parallels the goings-on in the main story, itself a clear parallel to Moore's own The Watchmen and its Curse of the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic. Each issue begins with a biography of an unsung luminary in British comics history.

So through his final comic, Moore does show tremendous affection for the medium even as he critiques what it has become and its decline into stale IP mines for mega-corporations. Yet there is an irony intrinsic to critiquing that "the ephemera of a previous century [is] squatting possessively on the cultural stage" while writing a series about Victorian fictional characters who achieve immortality and end up in roughly the same place they were at the end of The Black Dossier published over 10 years prior. Only, after all his work to deconstruct culture and fiction, his surrogate Blazing World comes across less like an homage to the enduring power of imagination and more like a cynical, stale stasis. For all we know, that may have been on purpose... An author who once said that all great myths need an ending giving us, ultimately, no real ending at all. Is he saying "move on, there's nothing more to get out of this"? Or is he just resurrecting popular characters out of sentiment? Hard to say from a guy who complains about pop-culture "refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own" and then casts Harry Potter as the Antichrist.

At least the whole thing ends on a charming strip of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill walking through their old warehouse full of sets and props from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, reflecting on each of the volumes, taking last shots at their critics (I am admittedly of what he calls the "Bloomsbury Justice League" set), and wondering how they're going to clear out all this junk. There has never quite been anything like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and its unlikely that there ever will be again.    

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