Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

cover art for The Black DossierHmmmm. It’s all about the cleverness, isn’t it?

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill came up with a brilliant premise in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In an alternate universe, some of the most noted characters in Victorian fiction are recruited to form a covert military unit working for British Intelligence. There are tantalizing references here and there to earlier groups similarly composed of literary figures. The 19th-century universe is also populated by other fictional heroes and villains, slyly referenced here and there throughout the text as our heroes set forth on their missions. High Steampunk! What adventures they’ll have!

Except they don’t, much. There were only two volumes. The first dealt with the formation of the group (Mina Murray from Dracula, Alan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man) and a power struggle between Professor Moriarty and Fu Manchu. The second involved the League combatting the Martians, in an alternate version of The War of the Worlds. Griffin and Jekyll/Hyde died, Captain Nemo stormed off in a huff, and Alan and Mina, who had become lovers, went their separate ways.

I enjoyed both volumes, for the most part, though I had some issues: a canvas this huge, characters this interesting (or potentially so) deserved more than two stories. Mina, supposedly the intrepid leader of the group, spends a lot of time simply being a victim. Mr. Hyde and Hawley Griffin have interesting character arcs (and are apparently punished for this by being killed off) but neither Nemo nor Quatermain get much to do, really, and Quatermain particularly comes across as weak and ineffective.

Still, the idea of it all was delicious, and if you enjoy studying each panel carefully and smiling at all those obscure pulp references, as I did – it’s like a literary Where’s Waldo? – you may not even notice that the pacing sags and neat ideas are never followed up on. Clever, clever, clever, but short on actual storytelling. Even so, I thought enough of the LEG to buy a replacement when my copy of Volume One disappeared during a relocation.

After many years and considerable legal wrangling, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: the Black Dossier appeared, and fans assumed it was Volume 3. Alas, it isn’t, and that misunderstanding has resulted in a stream of furious one- and two-star reviews over at Amazon. There is a little, slender bit of plot and a whole lot of clever, clever, clever pastiche.

What action there is is set in the 1950s. The alternate-universe Britain is just recovering after the fall of Orwell’s Big Brother, but the government that has replaced it seems to be equally oppressive. Quatermain and Mina, inexplicably immortal and youthful, have returned to Britain to find the Black Dossier, which contains information on their 19th-century League and all the earlier ones. Most of the book consists of excerpts from the Dossier, in a wide variety of styles and voices. Some work brilliantly. “What Ho! The Elder Gods,” in which Bertie Wooster mixes with the Lovecraft set, had me laughing until I wept. Other bits misfire. Moore managed to restrain his Sapphic ecstasies this time around but really, what the hell was the point of making the Golliwog and the Dutch Dolls a dirty joke? The end of the book, all drawn in 3-D and for which 3-D goggles were thoughtfully provided, looked interesting, but I can’t pass judgment on it: I’m effectively blind in one eye and so for me the whole thing was a migraine-inducing green and orange mess. Sorry, gents.

Mr. Moore, you have either said too much or too little here, and unless you back this up with some Story, your project fails. Which was to please, I assume; so I’m hoping for the best and waiting patiently for the actual Volume 3, which, rumor has it, will be called Century. In the meantime, fans everywhere are sulking.

(Wildstorm, 2007)

Kage Baker

Kage Baker (1952 - 2010) ran away to sea when she was five, getting a job as a steam whistle on a tramp steamer, and learned to read and write thanks to the tutelage of a kindly one-legged sea cook. He suggested she try her hand at writing science fiction, so she produced her first novel, In the Garden of Iden, at the age of eight.

Thirty-seven years later she managed to sell it to Harcourt Brace, who promptly regretted their impulse purchase but oh well. She produced multiple fine works of science fiction, fantasy and horror over the course of a life cut far too short.

She resided in Pismo Beach, California, with her parrot and her sister.

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