Sunday, 2 October 2011

Review - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1969

(or, The League of One Bossy Woman)
by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

First off, I should assert that I have a great love for the concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, and am rather fond of the first two series, especially series two, pitting the likes of Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde, Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray (formerly Harker) against the Martian war machines of The War of the Worlds. Really, what’s not to love about Hyde taking on the tripods on London Bridge, doing a little song and dance number as he goes down in flames?

Hyde has a martian for a tea...
The greatest heroes, heroines and villains of 19th century fantasy, united in one Victorian super-team. Genius.

Love the idea, love the early stuff. Dr Moreau’s horrific ursine experiment Rupert – a monstrous anthropomorphic polar bear in soiled red jersey and tattered checked yellow trousers. Nemo blowing away a Cairo mob with his version of the General Electric minigun from Predator. The distinctly unromantic aftermath of a sexual encounter between the (literally) scarred Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain, a man some decades her senior. Almost everything the Invisible Man gets up to, but particularly when he sells the Earth out to the Martians by drawing stick figures in the dirt. What Hyde ultimately does to the Invisible Man. Marvellous. They should make it into a film some day...

This Never Happened.
Then came The Black Dossier – an impressive straight to hardback edition which filled in some of the gaps in the League’s history: their clash with France’s Hommes Mysterieux above and below Paris; the long, long life of Orlando, the immortal, gender flipping warrior; Lovecraftian adventures with Bertie Wooster (“What Ho, Gods of the Abyss”); Orwell’s Big Brother and much, much more. Any work that manages to weld Billy Bunter, James Bond, Mrs Peel and Bulldog Drummond into a coherent British spy-mythos without devolving into excitable fan-fic or dry Wold Newtonian pseudo-scholarship is a winner in my book.

It’s the linking story in The Black Dossier which lets the side down a little. Essentially, Mina and Allan, unrecognisable in their 1950’s incarnations courtesy of Mr Kevin O’Neill, kind of run around a slightly Dan Dare-ish Britain for a while with a book under one arm until they hitch a lift in a giant golly’s air balloon. OK, so they do have some fights with Peel, Bond and Drummond, and manage to steal Fireball XL5’s predecessor. But our two protagonists also talk a lot. Or argue. As do their pursuers. There are a lot of panels of Alan and Mina walking along, too many I should say. And the book ends with some mystic waffle from Shakespeare’s Prospero in the other-dimensional Blazing World, which does go on a bit.

The trend continues in books 1 and 2 of Century – an interlinked 3-part series taking the League from 1910 to 1969. Book 1 is a single contained story - which is good - told in the right sequence – also good. But, and I’m writing from memory here, not a great deal happens given the length of the thing. Mina bosses around the latest incarnation of the League (a rejuvenated Quatermain, a male Orlando, the gentleman thief Raffles and Karnack the ghost-finder). An Aleister Crowley-surrogate cackles a bit. Some bird sings bits of The Beggar’s Opera. And Nemo’s daughter gets the ache and shells the Port of London from the Nautilus. Yeah, it probably sounds groovy and action-packed to you when lumped into one paragraph. Not so much when spread out over 70-plus pages of a comic book. Well, not by my standards anyway. Maybe I’m just greedy.

Mina anxiously awaits the invention of tit tape.
The situation is little improved book 2, set in 1969. It came in the post a while ago, and having waited far too long for the book to be published, I read it through in a slavering rush. But while the setting is new for the League (flower power, faux Rolling Stones, Jack Carter on the prowl and psychedelic freak-outs), the same old less interesting plot elements are there: Mina is a bossy cow, recognisable only by her scarf; Allan is a whiny puss, recognisable only by standing next to Mina; Orlando is an arse, mired in his/her anecdotage and polyamorous romps; and the faux-Crowley (Fauxley?) villain is a bit naughty, though his life-prolonging scheme is wicked but hardly on a par with all-out war between Moriarty and Fu Manchu, or a Martian Invasion (series one and two respectively).

I reached the end and my overall impression was that there had been an awful lot of chat again, and not enough action, at least not by the supposed heroes. They tended to walk around a lot and react rather feebly when it all kicked off. I think the problem lies primarily in Alan Moore’s choice of characters for his later League stories. The group in the first two series was comprised of a militaristic Sikh warlord (Nemo), a sociopathic Invisible Man, an ageing opium-fiend (Allan Quatermain) and Mr freaking Hyde, all kept in line by the little woman out of Dracula, played like a tough rape survivor. But in a way, Mr Moore shot his bolt early by taking Hyde, Nemo and the Invisible Man out of the picture back in 1899, leaving us with the bossy bird but no monsters to boss around. And once she and Quatermain take a dip (off-camera) in the fountain of youth, we are doomed to a visually unchanging couple at the centre of all subsequent stories. Quatermain in particular is rendered rather bland as a generic brown haired young bloke – I miss the grizzled old bugger of the 1890s, white goatee and all.

Oh look, they're walking and talking. Again.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the concept of a Strong Woman at the centre of events, but Mina’s earlier role in the League was balanced by the absolutely psychotic monstrosities she had to continually stare down out of sheer chutzpah. Take the Extraordinary freaks out of the League and all you’re left with is a group of all-too human Gentlemen (and -women). With one book of the Century story to go, I am rather hoping Messrs Moore and O’Neill take a leaf out of their own earlier works and inject a little more action-packed monsteraceousness into the League, and a little less of “Mina’s Great, All The Blokes Are Rubbish”. We shall see.

P.S. The text story at the back mentions the Clangers in passing, which very nearly makes it all better.

They're related to the Wombles, you know...


Herr Döktor said...

I do hope you noticed the Second Doctor wandering through London, tickled me no end!

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

Oh definitely! I did enjoy playing spot the cameo with Blakey, Steptoe Adam Adamant et al.