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Edinburgh Festival 2009: Not That It's Any of My Business, But...

Extraordinary Gentlemen

Shitty photo of (left to right) Alan Moore, Christopher Frayling and Kevin O'Neill. It's the best quality my phone was capable of at that distance, sorry. Much better photos can be found in the June 3rd 2009 entry on joelm1-joelmead.blogspot.comFor all the evidence of me being a terminal Alan Moore fanboy (see here, here, here, sort of here and the bottom bit of here), up until last night I'd never actually met the man in person. The closest I got to it was back in 2003, at a curious event hosted by comics historian Paul Gravett for the Comica Festival at the ICA. In it, a group of Moore's closest collaborators - including David 'V For Vendetta' Lloyd and Melinda 'Lost Girls' Gebbie - sat around a table and talked about the writer behind his back. It was fun as far as it went, and we all accepted that Moore had made his decision to generally stay out of the public eye, but his absence cast a large shadow over the event.

Six years on, and Alan Moore doesn't really feel the need to play the recluse any more. He's turned up at a number of Comica events: the most recent was on June 2nd 2009, when he and artist Kevin O'Neill took to the stage at the ICA to discuss their work on The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (Melinda Gebbie was also in attendance again, because in that six year gap she's become Mrs Alan Moore. Awwww.)

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill make for a nicely contrasting double act. O'Neill's short, sharply dressed and thinning on top: Moore is precisely none of those things. Both of them were talkative and charming for the full ninety minutes of this event, with host Christopher Frayling keeping the discussion tightly focussed on the book in question. I wrote about The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen during its first volume's run in 2000, so you should know the basic details already - while writing Lost Girls, Moore realised how much fun he was having mixing and matching characters from various children's books, and wondered if the same approach would work with Victorian adventure novels. He quickly realised that it was a pretty robust idea, but it turns out he didn't realise just how robust it was until much later.

Moore needed an artist who could bring the story to life, and he decided that Kevin O'Neill was the only man for the job. Born in the same year (1953) as Moore, he shared a similar background and sensibility: crucially, Moore considered O'Neill to be one of the few comics artists whose key influences were British rather than American. Plus, they'd worked well together in the past, most notably on Tygers, the Green Lantern story that made him the only artist to be banned by name by the Comics Code Authority. O'Neill insisted that he doesn't try to make his art look grotesque, it's just the effect that growing up on a council estate in the fifties has on your outlook. Moore agreed that times have changed: "you used to see all manner of grotesques on the streets, or 'relatives' as we used to call them."

There were two collected volumes of The League's adventures, published with varying degrees of interference by DC Comics. But that interference went too far on their next collaboration, 2007's The Black Dossier. It was delayed for several months owing to unspecified legal worries (that British secret service agent looks a tad familiar, for example), and is still technically barred from sale outside the US. A crucial insert - a 7" record of an original song by Moore - was removed from the book at the last minute, with the promise that it would be included in a future deluxe Absolute Edition. But when that edition came out, the record and other promised bonus features were missing, and the artwork was reproduced at lower quality than the original. Moore and O'Neill thought the time was right for a change of publisher, so The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is now operating out of two new homes - Top Shelf Comix in the US, and Knockabout Comics in the UK.

Their current project is Century: a series of three eighty-page graphic novels, to be released annually, following the League throughout the 20th century and beyond. The first volume, 1910, has just been published. Following the events documented in The Black Dossier, the remaining members of the original League (Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain) have been augmented by three newcomers: gentleman thief AJ Raffles, occult detective Thomas Carnacki and immortal genderbender Orlando. Carnacki has been experiencing dark visions of an upcoming apocalyptic event, and it transpires that a former member of the League is connected to it.

When the League was being published by the makers of Batman and Superman, there was frequent editorial pressure on Moore to insert an action sequence every few pages, "which isn't something you get with, say, Ibsen." This new volume uses its editorial freedom wisely, with a much slower-burning story that builds to a ferocious climax. (Both Moore and O'Neill happily admit to feeding their frustrations with DC into the carnage of the final pages.) Without wanting to give too much away about 1910, the key text at its centre is Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera: Moore hinted that the next volume, set in 1969, will be similarly focussed around Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's film Performance, featuring appearances from all the fictional London gangsters of the period up to and including Doug and Dinsdale Piranha.

But Moore made an important point here - even though The League has expanded from its original Victorian fiction brief to encompass most of 20th century popular culture, his priority is to ensure it still works as a story, even if you don't get all the references. (Besides, as he acknowledged, Jess Nevins is doing a sterling job of providing spoilerific annotations within days of publication.) The book's aim nowadays is to mash up the highest of high culture with the basest of low culture, with Moore attempting to shift the blame for the lowest parts to O'Neill. (It was the writer who came up with the idea of making one of Dr Moreau's creatures a seven-foot tall Rupert Bear, but it was the artist who carefully worked out just how appalling a pair of Rupert Trousers would look if an actual bear had been wearing them for several days.)

The discussion of storytelling in general took an entertaining diversion towards the end, when the subject of the terrible League film came up. As Moore and O'Neill see it, the film was doomed from the moment Sean Connery signed up for it. His star status meant that the film had to be centred round Allan Quatermain rather than Mina Murray, so Mina was made a vampire just to give her something to do. Connery's presence seems to have screwed up the film in several ways: his character's name was changed from Quatermain to Quartermain because he kept calling himself Quatermass by accident, while he refused to share any scenes with the Invisible Man because that would mean his character would be next to a naked man. (Just think about that one for a second there.) Moore was also confused by the additional characters dragged into the script: given that all the other members have special powers or skills, what the hell could Dorian Gray bring to the story? "Oh, hello, Dorian. [long pause] You're looking well."

When Alan Moore was playing a parody version of Stan Lee in his Silver Age homage series 1963, he referred to himself as Affable Al Moore. And having seen the man in person, I'd say that works. Even when he's complaining about the way he's been mucked around with over the years, he's doing it with dry wit and a good deal of charm. His and O'Neill's company made for a fine evening out, and it was worth the hour or so I spent queueing for a signed copy of Century: 1910. Although it's sad to report that Kevin O'Neill's queue was quite a bit shorter than Alan Moore's. Like I said back in 2000, it's part of Moore's legacy as a writer that people tend to forget about the artist at these things. Maybe I should come back to O'Neill when the Marshal Law anthology comes out.

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