Friday, 10 October 2014

Comic Reviews - August 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1969, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
(or, The League of One Bossy Woman)

First off, I should assert that I have a great love for the concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 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?


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 using stick figures in the dirt. What Hyde ultimately does to the Invisible Man. Marvellous. They should make it into a film some day.

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.

The situation is little improved in the latest episode, set in 1969. It came in the post a couple of days 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; the faux-Crowley (Fauxley?) 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 overriding 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 More’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.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the concept of a Strong Woman at the centre of things, 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.

Casanova, by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba

A good friend lent this 4-part series to me a couple of days ago. As far as I can tell, the character of Casanova Quinn has not appeared before, but it feels as if I’ve missed an introductory chapter somewhere. Perhaps that’s just how it’s written.

Conventional reviewing practice would be to read all four issues before launching into a piece like this, but you know what, I simply can’t wait. Granted, the fourth issue might just redeem what I perceive to be the failings of the preceding three, but in a serial medium like comic books, each issue should stand on its own to some degree, and I think Casanova falls down in that regard, as I shall try to argue.

When we first meet the titular character, he’s a naughty burglarish superthief, caught in mid-supertheft by E.M.P.I.R.E.,an obvious substitute for Marvel comics’ S.H.I.E.L.D. spy agency. So obvious in fact that E.M.P.I.R.E.’s second in command is 99% Dum-Dum Dugan, 1% leprechaun chin-beard.


Dum-Dum, ya old walrus.

I have no problem with parody and piss-takes as such, but in this story it seems a bit lazy, or at best misplaced. When you read in the back of issue one that the writer originally intended the story to be a Dominic Fortune vehicle, then it seems clear that he wrote S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dum Dum into the story early on and then barely changed them when the main character metamorphosed from Dom Fortune to Casanova Quinn. Likewise, there are counterparts here of Marvel’s villainous organisations Hydra and A.I.M. , one of them headed (pun intended) by a triple-skulled nod towards A.I.M.’s Modok, a version of which turns up in grotesque Shirley Temple drag in issue 2 (for reasons which escape me).

Never pass up an opporunity for a Modok pic.

Anyway, let me see if I can summarise the plots of issues 1 – 3 for you from memory. In issue one naughty Casanova is a superthief, then his superspy dad recruits him to replace his murdered superspy sister. Then Casanova seduces a spy-nurse, so he can steal a tooth. Then he gets into a staring contest with Not-Modok (which just reminded me of the animated World Staring Championships bits in Big Train. Those staring bits always annoyed me – it was funny at first, an entertaining idea, but whenever I pop in the DVD of the series, I always skip over the staring stuff. A bit like the snooker commentators in Mitchell & Webb: funny once, but you can’t really face watching any of the sketches more than once.)

Funny the first time.
Then increasingly not so.

Anyway, back to Casanova – he falls out of a plane and uses a doohickey to jump to a parallel world. He indulges in some pointless French dialogue for a page, then meets a guy with a bandaged face and a forgettable villain name (OK, Newman Xeno if you must know, as opposed to Fabula Berserko, the Not-Modok guy) who feeds him some cross-dimensional guff and wheels on an alternate world version of his dead sister (who is naughty, natch). He is inducted into yet another acronym-heavy organisation (W.A.S.T.E.), and then thrown into a timeline which is almost the same as his original world so he can conveniently commit the same robbery as he did on page one. He then punches the triple-headed dude’s (middle) face in. End of issue one.


Mad Gear beware!

In issue two, Casanova’s dad, the Nick Fury stand-in who looks more like Mike Haggar from Final Fight, sends him to an island to get a guy. Or something. There’s some stuff about orgone sex-energy and a years-long orgy, but you don’t really see much of it. Not-Dum-Dum has fallen in love with Shirley-Temple-Modok, and Casanova’s other-dimensional bad sister turns up in a showgirl outfit for purely exploitative reasons. A gun disassembles in mid-air, though that could be a hallucination. Two naked men hit each other a lot. Casanova shoots Bad-Sis in the gut. There is a page of adverts after which the story abruptly jumps forward in time with little warning or explanation. Our hero, sporting a beard and an unexplained military uniform hangs out (in a needlessly complicated chronological order) with Spy-Dad, bandaged face guy and two forgettable agents. There is lots of torture. Casanova’s white-haired but apparently 20-year old mum is introduced. End of issue two.

Say what?

In issue three, we meet a David Blaine–turned guru character, who Casanova attacks for a barely credible reason. There’s some rubbish about getting a bad guy to whip up a robot double of the Blaine-guru, then Casanova and Bad-Sis steal a ruby from a giant’s turban and there’s some more stuff about his mum. Then we hit another page of adverts and the story jumps again. At this point I begin to suspect that each issue should actually be divided explicitly into two distinct halves, and what we are missing here are a few handy captions like ‘End of Part Four’ and ‘Part Five’ – just a suggestion. The second half of issue three, for what it’s worth, is something to do with a lost island, a tribe of not-so unsophisticated natives, lots of spear chucking, and sailors in stripy sweaters who look like the crew of the Nautilus for no good reason.

Doubtless issue four will make all things clear to me and all my fears that this is in fact an incoherent mish-mash in need of a proper editor will be unfounded. But on the strength of three-quarters of this series, it’s not looking good. The artwork by Gabriel Ba is fine, if you like Mike Mignola-esque cartooning. The individual renditions are decent enough – Casanova is a long-haired full-lipped Jaggerish lad, Bad-Sis has unfeasible boobs, the bandaged guy has nicely drawn bandages, and so on. But I honestly could not say that the writing by Matt Fraction is up to the standard of his other work, say on The Immortal Iron Fist. It’s a case of enthusiasm and half-thought through ideas over readability.

Our main character is a self-serving ass-hat who seems to switch sides for very little reason. He never seems in real trouble, even when Bad-Sis is tearing into him with metal claws. The bad guys are too plentiful, and there are too many acronymic organisations confusing matters. The element of S.H.I.E.L.D.-parody seems incongruous in an otherwise original piece of work. The pacing is off, with characters jumping from point A to B for spurious reasons. The whole parallel world idea is introduced in issue one, but hardly developed in subsequent issues and seems superfluous (why couldn’t Bandaged Guy come from the same dimension, and why couldn’t Bad-Sis just have been an evil clone, a plot device that is introduced in the same issue?).

Most of all, why do I care about this guy and his triple crossing ways? Some of the Matt Fraction’s stated influences on this series (American Flagg!, Luther Arkwright, Grendel) are worn clearly on Casanova’s sleeve and it seems to me that this comic incorporates not only the good but bad elements of those earlier characters – the style-and-sex-over-substance of Flagg, the make-it-up-as-you-go plot of Arkwright, and the wait-a-minute-this-guy’s-just-out-for-himself character of Grendel.

B+ for energy, C+ for readability. See me after class.

Postscript – I had to check to see if Casanova had indeed been published earlier, and whilst there are no earlier stories that I had missed, issues one to four here had originally been printed as issues one to seven back in 2006. So there really were two stories in each issue. Pity they couldn’t have made it more obvious for we silly people. Tch.

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