Friday, November 29, 2013
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, 1999
I'm fairly sure that Alan Moore wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen expressly for me. The premise alone hits so many of my buttons it's not even funny. I adore Victorian literature (I was pretty much raised on nineteenth-century British novels). I love literary mashups featuring characters from different universes interacting. I love pulp fiction and pulp fiction pastiches. I love superhero stories. The first volume of League is all of those things wrapped up with a bow. It's clearly been crafted with exquisite care and enormous affection for (and knowledge of) Victorian pulp. What an absolute blast. This is, hands-down, the most fun I've yet had reading a graphic novel.
The story begins in 1898, with government agent Campion Bond - presumably the grandfather of James - sending Dracula's Mina Murray on a quest to locate and recruit a misfit group of literary characters for a special taskforce. Murray hunts down Allen Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man, though not without a few bumps along the way. The team is charged with an important task: the recovery of a substance that enables flight that has fallen into the dastardly hands of Fu Manchu. Tension runs high within the group, but they'll have to pull together if they want to save London from a terrible plot.
What I love about League is that it walks this really fine line between being goofy and self-referential and taking itself too seriously. There's such affection to the way this world is established, and such a deep understanding of what the source material was all about, and yet Moore still finds a way to put a fresh spin on the characters. League is far more of an adventure romp than it is a character study, but I love how distinctive these people are. Mina is frigid and sharp-tongued, Quatermain is struggling to regain his old heroism after opium addiction, Griffin is cheerfully psychotic and glibly nasty. The Jekyll/Hyde dynamic is great, too; Jekyll's palpable depression and exhaustion is beautifully contrasted with Hyde's foul-mouthed, bloodthirsty depravity. Nemo gets maybe the least development of any of the main characters, but what development he does have is great. There aren't really any majorly complicated character arcs per se (aside from Mina and Quatermain's romance, which anybody could see coming) but the members of the League have such a wonderful texture to them that it doesn't matter all that much. It's huge fun just to have all of these people in the same room.
For a literature geek like me, it was a complete delight to spot familiar characters (everyone from the Artful Dodger to Pollyanna gets a cameo) and search for little nods and tributes. Alan Moore clearly knows the penny dreadful, because League is dripping with authentic Victorian touches: the casual racism, the bombastic narration, the overblown adventure. He's smart enough to not make the book a simple nostalgia-fest, though: there's a real plot here, full of derring-do and with a couple of genuinely terrific twists. Like I said, the emphasis is more on a rousing, pulpy adventure than major character development, and that works well. This is a great big Hollywood action movie in graphic novel form, which doesn't leave a whole lot of time for navel-gazing.
Oh, and the art? Best art I've seen in a comic book yet. Just astonishing. The book feels absolutely bursting at the seams with life and detail. The pages are packed with delightful in-jokes and Easter eggs and little visual gags; I really look forward to re-reading and picking up on all of the stuff that I undoubtedly missed. Kevin O'Neill gives us a stunning steampunk London, where fog billows, rusted machinery pumps and blimps sail overhead. A trip to a Jules Verne-inspired Paris is equally eye-popping. The texture to this world is simply gorgeous: this really does seem like a place where Sherlock Holmes, Captain Nemo and Dracula could conceivably coexist. O'Neill's action scenes are extraordinary, as well. They feel huge, and overblown in a completely delightful way. That climax is just gloriously enormous. He hits a good balance with the characters, too: they seem convincingly larger than life while still remaining somewhat grounded.
So yeah: League is tailor-made for me, and I enjoyed every page with giddy abandon. Moore and O'Neill are clearly a perfectly matched pair for the task of bringing this world to life - Moore's firm grasp of his subject and his arch, clever dialogue compliment O'Neill's bold, beautiful artwork perfectly. League doesn't try to be especially deep, nor does it try to make some big statement about the works it's borrowing from; it's just a concentrated blast of Victorian awesomeness, and seriously, what more does it have to be?