wednesday, march 22, 2006

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

Lets get a couple of things out of the way to begin with. This is a look at Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill's landmark comic series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It has nothing to do with the odious movie of the same title. Second, if you like your comic books to feature heroes in bright colored spandex who beat each other up and make nice by the end, you are not going to like this book. Lastly, this is not a review of a single comic book series; this is actually an examination of an incredible fictional universe that is as vibrant and full of possibility as our own. No Shit.

Alright, now that is done lets get down to the nitty gritty.

This is one of the best comic books ever made. It is well written, beautifully illustrated and constucted with intricate care and detail. It stretches the boundaries of what comics can do as a medium and how you as a reader approach it. It is the rare work that pushes you to other works outside of itself as much excitement as you would have looking forward to its next installment. This book will eventually prove to be the key for curing cancer.

Well, maybe not the last one, but it is damned hard to overpraise what Moore and O'Neill have accomplished here. Moreover it has sparked the prodigious, fascinating and just a little bit scary genius of one Jess Nevins from Houston, Texas. But more on him in a bit...

Nutshell time: Set in 1898, League is the account of a group of Victorian-era adventurers brought together by the British government to counter a great menace to the country's safety. The catch is that the heroes all come from the literature of the era; H. Rider Haggard's Alan Quartermain, Bram Stoker's Wilhemina Murray, Jules Verne's Cpt. Nemo, H.G. Well's Invisible Man and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde, of course).

OK. This is the part where the movie takes off for the depths of horrid cinematic mediocrity and the comic begins to attain literary heights it has yet to stop ascending.

In an interview Moore says that the concept was pretty straightforward until about mid-way through issue 2 when he and O'Neill (who is a very active contributor to the title) had a horrible glorious epiphany - why not make the whole book originate in existing literature? This is the part where goosebumps should begin to form on your arms.

Let's step back a bit to 1971 when noted science fiction writer Phillip Jose Farmer published a little book called Tarzan Alive! It's a pretty slim book had an interesting premise - to take all the books from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan cannon and create a realistic timeline of this famous adventurer's life. Instead of handling the character as a fictional person, try to create a biography for the incredible life led by Lord Greystroke.

Little noted at the time was a mention in the book to the odd happenings one winter day in England in 1795 that set the drama into motion. On Dec. 13 of that year a meteor struck the earth outside of the town of Wold Newton (here is a monument erected to mark the event). According to Farmer, two carriages containing the members of several notable families was passing nearby and the occupants were exposed to bizarrely high levels of radiation although they were apparently unharmed due to the experience.

As Wold Newton expert Win Scott Eckert puts it; "The radiation caused a genetic mutation in those present, which endowed many of their descendants with extremely high intelligence and strength, as well as an exceptional capacity and drive to perform good, or, as the case may be, evil deeds." These families intermarried in the following generations, reinforcing the mutated gene and eventually producing what Farmer calls a "nova of genetic splendor, this outburst of great detectives, scientists, and explorers of exotic worlds, this last efflorescence of true heroes in an otherwise degenerate age."

The inheritors of this gene include: Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Nero Wolfe, James Bond, the Shadow, G-8, the Spider, Captain Midnite, Flash Gordon, Travis McGee, Lew Archer, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, C.Auguste Dupin, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, and John Shaft.

Farmer furthered this proposition in his 1975 book, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life but despite the novelty of the idea, for the most part the tangled family trees he posited were merely a backdrop for his examination of Savage and Greystroke. Since then the Wold Newton universe has expanded exponentially and shows no sign of stopping. Eckert outlines this twisted and wondrous world of interconnections on his excellent website and in his book Myths of the Modern Age.

So now we have a template out there to connect the alternate worlds of just about any fictional character ever created. Seriously.

Because it is one thing to say Sherlock Holmes influenced the creation of Batman and quite another to say Sherlock Holmes is Bruce Wayne's grandfather. The Wold Newton approach is the latter, but the fun part is trying to find the ways the history of the two match up. And once you start down this thrilling hypothetical path, the sheer number of possibilities simply explode at every juncture.

The plethora of Wold Newton sites bears this out. Want to see the connection between Cyrano and Jean Luc Picard? No problem.

Zorro and Batman? A breeze.

Dr. Who and Conan? Why not?

(It is necessary to note that Farmer was not the first to pioneer this idea, others had done similar work with Sherlock Holmes in the past. In addition, there is no direct connection between the Wold Newton universe and the one in League - they simply both use the same literary premise.)

But outside of interesting but undeniably academic essays, what do we do with this extensive interconnection between all these fascinating fictional universes? Well, that's where League comes in (you thought I forgot about it, didn't you?) What Moore & O'Neill proposed to was make every character in League to be a real character from literature. There are a few exceptions due to the requirements of the story - notably the key character, Campion Bond - but pretty much everyone, even the people pictured standing on the streets in the background, come from existing literature.

Because it is one thing to create a fictional universe, or meta-universe as the case may be, but it is an entirely different thing to bring characters alive in it. And that is what League has done. You let the tricks of the background slide away and you then get drawn forward with the story and into the plight of the characters.

They become alive again, which is the hallmark of true literature in my opinion. This is why things such as the sacrifices (and come-uppances) of the characters in the second volume strike such an amazingly deep chord with the reader. I can count on my hand the number of comics that moved me as much as the end of this series and half of those were written by Moore.

(League may be the precursor of great things to come, as well. This unified fictional universe idea has started to take hold in other comic works, notably Ellis and Cassaday's excellent Planetary, Ross and Busiek's Kingdom Come and Moore's awesome Top Ten.)

While you can read this series and simply enjoy it for the story, it really becomes amazing when you are familiar with the characters from their original works. I found myself returning to original Quartermain books and several of Verne's novels I had first read as an adolescent. I re-read H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man as well as Stoker's Dracula. Then, inevitably, I was drawn to a dozen or more books each of these inspired me to read in turn. And it gets even worse. League constantly presents you new characters you are inevitably drawn to want to learn more about.

Given the time setting of League the copyrights on most of these works has expired allowing Moore and O'Neil pretty much free reign across the fictional landscape. And believe you me, they take full advantage of it. If a character speaks, you can find them in another work somewhere. If a sign is on a building, it is for a reason. If a newspaper flips by, read the headline because they put it there on purpose. All of which can be daunting to the modern reader with only a passing familiarity with Victorian literature.

Enter the incomparable Jess Nevins.

Nevins is a research librarian who takes a particular interest in Victorian fiction. League was a perfect subject for his frighteningly vast archival mind (which Moore & O'Neill prove the perfect foil for, as well). After posting his notes on various fan sites he created an online annotation page for the series (which is mirrored here). Nevins has since collected the annotations for each run of the series into matching companion books; Heroes and Monsters for the first series and A Blazing World for the second. Both books also include essays on different aspects of Victorian fiction as well as interviews with Moore and O'Neill.

For folks like me who were interested in knowing who and what was going on in the series, Nevins' work has been invaluable. It is almost as fun to read the series over with annotation guide and finally get what is going on under the surface as it was to read the series the first time. The exhaustive referencing O'Neill indulges himself in the British Museum sequences alone make Nevin's book worth the purchase and it is downright indespensable when you read Moore's "World Almanac" which accompanied League II.

What type of rare gun is Quartermain using in a certain scene? Who is the policeman spoken to briefly in another? What are the aliens saying to each other in their weird language? As hard and Moore and O'Neill labored to fill every iota of the series with authentic detail, Nevins works just as hard to figure out what it is. (For the sake of full disclosure, I am one of the many contributers that helped assemble the annotations for the second series.)

Moreover, reading the series and the companion books together gives you an uneasy understanding of exactly how vast this possible universe may be. But thats why the whole thing is so dynamic. Moore admits as much in interviews admitting his relationship with Nevins was "symbiotic." Because as more and more people read the supporting books they become interested in the original literature which, in turn, fuels their desire for more stories about these fantastic characters.

So, in case you haven't guessed it, I think pretty highly of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But I will leave you with a warning; if you get pulled into this incredible world of interconnecting fictions you may never get out.

But that isn't a bad thing at all, in my opinion.

more:  Books 

posted by kleph @ 11:27 pm |

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