Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 24/05/2000.
A lot has happened in the intervening seven and a half years, so here's a quick recap for you. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill eventually finished the first volume of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics discussed below, and completed a second volume featuring the same team battling the aliens from War Of The Worlds. The movie version of LOEG was released, and was astonishingly shit. (As was the movie version of From Hell: hear Moore talk about both of them to Stewart Lee in an entertaining 12.8Mb MP3 interview.) I got told off on my letters page by Gloriana on 19/11/2001 for misusing the term 'slash fiction'. The 'long-delayed pornographic saga' I mention at one point, Lost Girls, finally saw the light of day in 2006 and was subsequently reviewed here.
But the main reason for this repost is the imminent arrival of new LOEG material from Moore and O'Neill. The Black Dossier is an original graphic novel, rather than a collection of previously published comics: it takes the story of the League forwards into the 1950s, and backwards into their previously untold history. Rumour has it that copyright issues, similar to those that bedevilled Lost Girls, may prevent its sale in the UK (or is it something more sinister?): but based on my experiences with that earlier work, I believe that Amazon US should be willing to ship it regardless. And I'm not just saying that because I'm on commission. Honestly.
Alan Moore knows the score. - Can U Dig It?, Pop Will Eat Itself
Alan Moore knows the score.
- Can U Dig It?, Pop Will Eat Itself
If it wasn't for Alan Moore, none of the comics articles on this site would exist. Yeah, like you buggers would notice. Sure, there's lots of nice feedback from readers when I cover films and music and all those other 'proper' art forms: but the moment I mention some of the stunning work that's currently being done in comics, you all get bored and wander off. We had this argument already back in the 80s, didn't we? And Alan Moore was a hero to us comics evangelists even then.
Moore was one of the first writers to take a mainstream comic book and steer it perilously close towards the territory of literature. He made the idea of adults reading comics plausible, fashionable and even enjoyable. Which isn't bad for someone who started his career writing and drawing a weekly cartoon strip called Maxwell The Magic Cat for his local paper in Northampton. Quickly realising his strengths lay more in writing than drawing, he scripted comics for a number of British publications, including Dr Who Weekly and 2000 AD. After a couple of years of this he was spotted by DC Comics in America, and in 1983 they gave him Swamp Thing monthly to play with.
Swampy was, to be honest, one of DC's sillier ideas: the story of Alec Holland, a scientist who falls into a swamp during an explosion and ends up turning into a monster composed entirely of vegetable matter. At least, that's how he started out. Moore's first act on the title was to upend the Swamp Thing's creation story entirely, revealing that the genetically altered micro-organisms in the swamp consumed Alec's remains and his conciousness along with them. "We thought the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn't. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland!" It's a typical Moore narrative reversal, the first of countless more to come.
For four years, Moore used the new improved Swampy in a series of increasingly cerebral horror tales, with literate dialogue and visual and verbal counterpoint previously unseen to this degree in the medium. As the tales got darker, it got harder and harder for the book to stay within the guidelines of the Comics Code Authority - the ludicrously tight regulations brought in to protect juvenile readers after the horror comics scares of the 50s. Finally, when Moore produced a story containing undertones of incestuous necrophilia (but clever with it, mind), DC bit the bullet and published the comic without the Code seal of approval. Surprisingly, the world failed to end. Over the years, as a result of this breakthrough, DC continued to develop titles that were carefully labelled as being for 'mature readers', many of them involving British creative staff poached from 2000 AD as Moore was. Nowadays DC has a whole imprint dedicated to this sort of thing: Vertigo, responsible for titles such as The Invisibles, Preacher and Transmetropolitan, as covered here.
Moore's finest hour came in the mid-eighties when he was given a twelve-issue mini-series of his own in collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons. Freed from the constraints of an ongoing story and pre-defined characters, the result was Watchmen. At the simplest level, it's the story of a band of superheroes investigating the death of one of their number and finding out things they didn't really want to know. But Moore and Gibbons used this as a springboard for something positively epic, simultaneously celebrating and deconstructing the superhero genre. The story easily sustained itself over twelve issues, but individual chapters were a delight in themselves. Watchmaker contained some of the most spectacular timeline manipulation outside of a Nic Roeg movie, while Fearful Symmetry told the story of ink-blot faced vigilante Rorschach in a panel layout that was entirely symmetrical from the centre pages out. Along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and art spiegelman's Maus, Watchmen was one of the key works in the 80s comics revival.
As a result of this unfortunate exposure to your so-called "comic" magazine... Toby, hitherto a cheery lad of twelve years who has always done well at school, now says he cares for nothing in the world so much as "trollops, absinthe and contemporary dance"...
- Mrs Amelia Mumford, quoted in letters page of LOEG #3
Since then, Moore has continued to toil on a variety of comics projects, although his profile's never been as high as the days of Watchmen. Some of the work's been successful, notably his and Eddie Campbell's take on the Jack The Ripper conspiracy theories, From Hell (soon to be filmed by the Hughes Brothers). Other projects have been less successful, notably the tantalisingly great Big Numbers: a blend of soap opera and chaos theory set on the proposed site of a Northampton hypermarket, which died after two issues following a falling-out with artist Bill Sienkiewicz. And in the middle of all this he still managed to find time to write his first novel, Voice Of The Fire, the single best prose work written by anybody in the 1990s.
But a curious thing happened to Moore a few years ago. Having played a major part in making comics sombre, weighty and occasionally bloody grim things, he suddenly announced that he wanted to make them fun again. One of his first moves in this direction was 1963, a series of lovingly affectionate pastiches of 60s Marvel comics, complete with fake ads and a breezy letters column. Since then, he's alternated 'serious' work with more playful superhero books. This culminated in 1999 with Moore starting up a new imprint, America's Best Comics, dedicated to producing comics that were both respectable and fun.
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen - written by Alan Moore, drawn by Kevin O'Neill - is part of the ABC range, and has its roots in the fine traditions of what's known as 'slash fiction': constructing new stories around combinations of existing fictional characters. The term comes from the slash in the middle of one of the most famous sub-genres, Kirk/Spock stories: unofficial tales of the Star Trek characters that invariably ended up with them having sex with each other. Moore's already experimented with slash fiction in the purest sense in Lost Girls, his collaboration with artist girlfriend Melinda Gebbie: a long-delayed pornographic saga featuring the erotic adventures of Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan and Alice from, er, Wonderland. LOEG starts from a much less contentious premise: what if all the key heroes from Victorian adventure fiction banded together to fight crime?
Moore has said that the current series of six is merely the first adventure of the League, and hence a large part of the story concerns the team's assembly. It's 1898 in an alternate, more technically advanced version of Victorian London. (The opening scene is set in Dover on the site of the Channel Causeway, whose opening has been sadly delayed until 1902 because of mechanical difficulties.) British Intelligence has a problem: a sample of cavorite (a rare material capable of powering a flying machine) has been stolen, and the evil hand of the Chinee has been detected in the matter. Campion Bond of MI5 has been charged with assembling a team of adventurers to retrieve it.
Bond's first two recruits are Captain Nemo and Wilhelmina Murray. Nemo, of course, we know (though he doesn't look anything like James Mason did in the movie...), but Miss Murray may be a little unfamiliar. Moore's surprisingly coy about her identity, but does drop copious clues all over the place. Her married name was Harker. She was divorced following a scandal involving A Gentleman Of Foreign Extraction. She never goes anywhere without a scarf covering her neck. Short of having Winona Ryder play her, it's difficult to see what more he could do...
Travelling in the Nautilus, Mina and Captain Nemo set out to track down the three other members of the League that Bond has assembled. Allan Quatermain, one time explorer of King Solomon's Mines, now living in a permanent opium haze in Egypt. Dr Henry Jekyll, whose monstrous alter ego is committing ghastly murders in Paris, of a ferocity unheard of since that unpleasantness in the Rue Morgue all those years ago. And Hawley Griffin, who is discovered to be serially molesting the pupils of Miss Rosa Coote's Correctional Academy For Wayward Gentlewomen in Edmonton. (As an invisible man, he can get away with that sort of thing.) The five put aside their obvious differences and make plans to recover the stolen cavorite from the lair of Dr Fu Manchu in Limehouse, only to find the situation's much more complicated than they first thought.
Is Mr O'Neill selling original artwork from the series?
- Oystein Sorensen, quoted in letters page of LOEG #5 (scheduled November 1999, published May 2000)
Mr Sorensen, we are not entirely convinced that Mr O'Neill is currently even drawing original artwork for the series...
- editor's reply
The great thing about LOEG is that while it works on a multitude of levels, its creators always ensure that at the very least it's a rip-roaring yarn, good enough to stand alongside the source novels it pilfers from. And a large part of that is down to the artist, Kevin O'Neill. (As has become traditional in these comics pieces, the artist gets a throwaway mention in a couple of paragraphs towards the end. One legacy of Alan Moore's work is that serious analysis of comics nowadays ends up focussing far too much on the writer, at the expense of the person or persons responsible for how the thing actually looks. But anyway.)
Like Moore, O'Neill is a British creator with a reputation for controversy. Moore may have been the writer who made working outside the boundaries of the Comics Code acceptable, but legend has it that O'Neill is the only artist mentioned in the Code by name as an example of what's not acceptable to juvenile audiences. His style is hard-edged and cartoony, with lots of over-the-top background detail and a flair for graphic violence when it's needed: it fitted the themes of futuristic vigilante pisstake Marshal Law down to the ground, but it didn't seem an obvious choice for Victorian melodrama. In fact, given the steampunk sensibilities of Moore's re-invented turn-of-the-century London, it's a perfect match: the overcrowded slums of Limehouse and the huge underground lair of Fu Manchu give O'Neill the opportunity to provide his usual detail overload. In the finest tradition of the time, Moore builds up verbally on several occasions to the visual revelation of something fantastic, and O'Neill never fails to deliver: whether it's the spectacular first appearance of the Nautilus, or a splash page of Mr Hyde tearing Chinamen in half one by one.
Obviously, there are countless references to the literature of the time: notwithstanding the main characters, it appears that everyone who appeared in a novel circa 1898 makes a cameo appearance in the book. Some of them are blindingly obvious, some a little or a lot more subtle: my favourite is one of the Invisible Man's victims at the Rosa Coote Academy, who says afterwards "Although I've been mishandled by a demon, I'm determined to remain optimistic, no matter what." Miss Coote is delighted: "Dear Pollyanna! Such a plucky child!" Happily, these appearances are just the icing on the cake: you'll still enjoy the story tremendously if you don't spot all the cameos, but you'll get even more out of it if you do. (And thanks to the work of Jess Nevins, you can always cheat: see the Links below.)
This being Moore, there's also some nifty subtext running under all the derring-do. He revels in the non-PC nature of the literature of the time, sending up the inherent sexism and racism that it was rife with. He notes that the group chosen to save the day is as flawed a series of heroes as you can get, each of them regarded by society as monsters for one reason or another. And as with 1963, he's made the comic a complete package representative of its time. Aside from 24 pages of story, we also get a readers' letters page (where the correspondents and the editor attempt to outdo each other in Victorian pomposity), a backup prose serial featuring a new Allan Quatermain adventure, and adverts pages with a mixture of genuine period ads and outrageous fake ones. (You decide which category the ads for the 'Edison Patented Electrical Negro' and the 'Yankee Rubber Whore' fall into.)
The one problem with League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is that it takes a lot of painstaking work to make a comic this good. Both Moore and O'Neill are notorious for delaying projects until they've got them right, and the seven-month gap between issue 4 and the just-published issue 5 are tribute to that. But part of that delay was down to a different matter entirely. With several thousand copies of issue 5 printed and ready to ship, it was suddenly announced that Paul Levitz, vice-president of parent company DC Comics, had ordered the entire run to be destroyed and reprinted. It transpired that he'd taken offence to an advert at the back of the comic: and one of the genuine ones, not one of Moore's fakes. The ad in question was for the Marvel "Whirling Spray" Vaginal Syringe, as shown above. For the week or so that the comic was out of circulation, outraged speculation rampaged across the internet as Levitz was castigated for presumably baulking at the word "vagina" appearing in a mature comic. In fact, the reprinted version replaced this with an identical advert for the Amaze "Whirling Spray" Vaginal Syringe. It suddenly became apparent that DC's objection was to the item being named after their arch-rivals Marvel Comics, and the unspoken libellous implication that the publishers of The X-Men were a bunch of douchebags. Was this Moore's intention? He's not telling, though he's said in interviews that he plans to change his name to Alan Marvel-Vagina in the near future.
Still, with five out of six issues published (adverts claim that issue six will be "on sale later than you can bear"), we have another out-and-out comics classic on our hands. And Moore and O'Neill have more plans for the League. There are hints in the Allan Quatermain text story of Martian invasions and devil-worshipping shenanigans in their future. There are even suggestions that we may hear of an earlier version of the League glimpsed briefly in a photograph, consisting of Lemuel Gulliver, the Scarlet Pimpernel and wife, Doctor Syn, Fanny Hill and the Last of the Mohicans. (You think I'm kidding?) But for now, revel in the current series and follow the instruction at the end of issue 5... "If man ye be and not some craven dog of Flanders, then in G__'s name do not miss our profuse climax!" How could I do otherwise? Being a monkey, and all.
WildStorm Comics are the parent company of America's Best Comics, and Wildstorm are in turn owned by DC Comics. Which is rather amusing given the way that Moore stomped off the payroll at DC several years ago in a dispute over creator's rights. Anyway, this is the closest that ABC has to an official site, so you'll find out about The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and other ABC books there. It also includes an article by Moore himself [dead link] documenting his plans for the ABC line.
The Alan Moore Fan Site is a lovingly built shrine dedicated to the man and his works. Regularly updated news and links to a variety of other sites.
Comicon is a huge on-line resource for comics fans, which has its own dedicated Alan Moore area, and discussion boards where people natter about all things comic-related. The whole affair of the Marvel "Whirling Spray" is debated in a calm rational fashion here [dead link]. (Alternatively, if you want frenzied irrational debate of the same topic, check out how it was discussed in the comics newsgroups. Contains strong language from the outset, as they say.)
Jess Nevins' Comics Annotations is a terrific labour of love if ever there was one: a series of annotations to a number of comic books, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen included. With the help of a string of collaborators and the contributions of assorted newsgroup denizens, Jess explains as many of the literary in-jokes and references as you can stand. Jess even includes links to e-text versions of the League's original adventures: Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, Dracula, The Invisible Man, King Solomon's Mines and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. [Update: Nevins has now turned these annotations into a cottage industry, with two books of them already published for the two existing volumes of LOEG, and a third to follow in 2008 to tie in with The Black Dossier. See Amazon links below.]
PWEI Nation is a memorial to Grebo warriors Pop Will Eat Itself, and among other things you'll find a detailed analysis of Can U Dig It?: the song quoted at the start of this page that's basically a list of their favourite things, Alan Moore included. Although when I did a search on the web to verify the quote, I also found a sweet little short story called My Brother Throws A Pretentious Party that you might enjoy. Love that Jacques Lacan joke.