Thousand Faced: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The Black Dossier:  Published by America’s Best Comics

1910:  Published by Top Shelf and Knockabout Publishing

Alan Moore, Writer

Kevin O’Neill, Artist

This is such a wonderful idea, a team of superheroes which intersects with history, literature and myth. It began with the turn of the century in 1899 and has spooled out as a very intriguing collection of tales told through different chronological points of interest. When the first title came out, I went to the comic store and took a peek within and saw the artwork by Kevin O’Neill. I got considerably underwhelmed. The story, as always from Moore, was very engaging. I thought I might wait awhile before dropping the funds to add this to my collection. The movie version came out and it was fun in a Hollywood ate-my-concept kind of way.

1902 came out several years later and it dealt with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and H.G. Wells Martian invasion. Again, a satisfying read but the artwork left something to be desired so I did not buy that one either. Fortunately a good library system gave me access without purchase. Are you sensing a pattern here?

I’m a big fan of Alan Moore. From his run on Swamp Thing to The Killing Joke (a Batman classic) to his work for America’s Best with Top 10 and Tom Strong, he has spanned his own fascination with comics and like Quentin Tarantino with films, he has taken his experiences and influences and added his own take on them to wonderful results. The Watchmen worked out very well all the way around in print and film. He’s kind of like the clown at a children’s party that exposes himself. If you have shreds of innocence and blue-eyed wonder connected to your comics experience; he will gouge that wonder right out of those Edmund Keane-like eyes.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, despite what I consider less than professional quality artwork, is still worth a good sit down and perusal. I never liked Kevin O’Neill, try as I did when he first turned up in the mid-80s. I realize it’s supposed to be gritty and disturbing but it looks more like artwork done by somebody cutting it into the thick layers of paint in a men’s room stall with a rusty penknife. It is different but so is a monkey performing brain surgery. The unique nature of the event does not guarantee a satisfying one.

These two collections are a strange pair. Keep in mind this is Alan’s Moore’s story and the function of the space-time as we know it it too pedestrian for his nibs. So the Black Dossier comes first and deals with The League in the 1950’s. There is a scumbag James Bond working with a sluttier Mina Harker with blonde hair this time. Even vampire girls gotta change up things sometime. There are more elements of science-fiction as the era compels it, complete with bulbous penis-like spaceships. During the course of the story there are side tales which may or may not advance the story but they are there nevertheless. I liked the 1984 influenced tract about obedience in the factory line. Moore has a lot of reminders of how comics were done in Europe in the late 50’s and early 60’s before DC Silver Age and Marvel blew up the form for everybody else in the world. I was a child in Europe at the time and still recall those styles of illustrated storytelling.

By the end of The Black Dossier, which came with 3D glasses no less there are the usual beatings, killings and catastrophes incorporated into real and literary events. It ends with what seems a wrap-up to the whole series with a unified theory of myth and how it is part and parcel of what comics are all about. The end.

No. Wait-for-it. 1910 is published by not one but two publishers. Now we are back some forty years from where the previous book ended.  Tom Carnacki, a clairvoyant has a vision of massive death and destruction coming to London. He wakes up the rest of the current incarnation of The League with his terrified fit. Captain Nemo’s daughter apparently some sort of mutant with Aquaman-like swimming abilities leaves her ailing father to become a washerwoman at a disreputable pub in London’s east end. The League mills around in confusion looking for the threat and produces a great line by Orlando, a sex-changing immortal who stole Excalibur from The Lady of the Lake. “I believe the stupidest thing I ever said was ‘Oh look! What a wonderful horse!’ That was at Troy.” Eventually “Jenny Diver” (Nemo’s daughter) is brutally gang-raped by the clientele of the pub that employs her while a chanteuse from the same pub sings Pirate Jenny from Brect’s Three Penny Opera. Yes it’s The Black Freighter again but this time summoned by Jenny who embraces the violence of her legacy and surpasses it.  The Nautilus and her crew go on a bloody tear of pirate vengeance. The League mills about in confusion and uncertainty which I suppose Moore’s view of the moral ambiguity of the 20th Century.

It’s worth your time to read these books despite O’Neill’s rudimentary art. The stories are challenging and it’s always fun to pick out the historical and literary references if you have a leaning toward that sort of thing. I’m sure there are more to follow and will likely evade more pre-teen friendly super hero movies made out of them. That has to count for something.

By Bill Hilburn

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