I hadn’t read a graphic novel/comic book in a while, so thought I’d have a go with one of the many Alan Moore (whose work I really like) projects that I’ve never read. The one I chose was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series he’s been intermittently adding to since the late 90s, with the first two “volumes” collected in this omnibus edition. There are 12 issues of a monthly magazine included here, with each issue including a combination of prose and standard comic book presentation to evoke a complex, entertaining and richly meta fictional world.
Alan Moore and his artist, Kevin O’Neill, have created a steampunk Victorian England peopled by thousands of characters from the fiction of the period. The first volume sees a group of fictional misfits drawn together by Mina Murray, heroine of Dracula, in order to thwart a plan to destroy London. The second volume sees the same gang – The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, and the less household-name protagonists from King Solomon’s Mines and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – fighting off a Martian invasion. They encounter Mycroft Holmes, Ishmael from Moby Dick, the Artful Dodger and a huge amount of other recognisable characters wherever they go. In the (fictional) prose section at the end of the volume, Moore describes journeys made by the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and those made by previous and later incarnations of it, including parties led by Prospero, Lemuel Gulliver and the gender-changing protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando) and sets his fiction within an ambitious and highly literary world that seems to contain every supernatural fiction ever invented – both folklore and science fiction, even Twin Peaks. The book as a whole shows a clear – and an intense – interest in fiction itself, in literature, as well as in myth and myth’s construction.
The comic of the first volume works far better than that of the second – there is an international flair as the League is assembled from across the world, and there is a pressing mystery and a lot of excitement and a lot more references to books I’ve actually read. In essence, I suppose, it’s more Gothic than sci-fi, whereas a Martian invasion (though, of course, H. G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in the 1890s) is far more outer space and lasers. But, fuck it, I’m being snobbish, but in terms of narrative construction, the comic of Volume 2 is simpler – Mars is about to invade, Mars invades, war ensues. The first volume is a better comic, but the second volume is a far finer piece of fiction due to the prose.
Volume 1 contains a short story at the end, while Volume 2 has an almost 50-page ‘Almanac’ tying in Moore’s League with a myriad of fictions. This dense text (a couple of hours reading in it, it’s the length of a short novel) is strangely compelling, for it expands what happens in the text, it develops the characters and their world. Moore’s prose is tight and witty, where it drops into journal and letter and diary entries it is especially charming, as he has a keen eye for tone. And though the adventures and stories that are recounted in this section are all short and swift (as there are so many), there are moments of great tension and real excitement.
For me, this book was a reminder of how many important texts I am yet to read, and of how many once influential and important novels have not become obscure. Moore is clearly a voracious reader, with a knowledge of literary and mythical culture that would be monomanic if it wasn’t for the other interests he displays elsewhere. He is a writer whose works feel very involved, and he is very skilled at evoking character and emotion with a small amount of words. Mina Murray, here, is a rounded and strong female character, by far the bravest member of the League and very much its leader. That’s a great thing to find in a comic book, though it is somewhat diminished when she has sex with an old man in the second volume. But I think this is Moore writing of a sexually mature and independent woman. Which – tell me off, internet, if I’m wrong – is a far more realistic portrait of a woman living through a Gothic nightmare than one would often get in the nineteenth century.
So, to conclude, there’s literary pretentiousness, there are aliens, there is deceit, adventure, sex, violence – it’s a great comic book, though it isn’t quite as deep or as emotionally complex as Watchmen, V for Vendetta or From Hell, all of which are superior works. It’s a lot of fun, though, and I will certainly seek out the third volume at some point.