The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Volume 1), Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

America’s Best Comics/DC Comics, 2002, 192 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56389-858-6

One of these days, I will write about copyright and the public domain and how corporations are holding real human intellectual achievements for ransom in exchange for imaginary monetary gains. I will discuss how our culture feeds on itself and how unlimited copyrights are choking vitality out of it. And whenever I do, I will reference Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at length.

But not today, because I want to spend some time just discussing Moore’s remarkable work. It’s not the first of his stories to find its way on my bookshelves (already furnished with a copy of Watchmen and V for Vendetta), but it’s well worth some attention even for non-comics fans. A steampunk fantasy in which some of the best-known fictional heroes of the Victorian era are brought together to fight threats to the British empire, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is indeed an extraordinary piece of work mixing superhero fantasy, literary allusions and historical flair.

On the eve of the release of the July 2003 movie adaptation, I scoured local comic shops and managed to get the last available copy in the Ottawa area, fresh out of the “new arrivals” box. The trade paperback edition of the first series (a second is currently being published, with a third one announced) contains all six episodes of the story, plus miscellaneous art and a collected “serial” short story written by Moore in the style of H. Rider Haggard.

Why Haggard? Maybe because he’s the author of the Alan Quatermain stories, and Quatermain is one of the five “extraordinary gentlemen” of the title. Completing the cast are Mina Harker, Captain Nemo (Woo! My favourite!), Doctor Jekyll (including Doctor Hyde) and the invisible man. All of which are safely out of copyright by now, hence available for play. (Allusions to their contemporary detective Sherlock Holmes are also sprinkled through, though by 1898, Holmes is still presumed dead from his Reichenbach Falls showdown. One also suspects that Moore has steered away from Holmes in reaction to the endless Holmes pastiches found elsewhere in steampunk.)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen essentially reprises superhero comic book fantasies: the story is strictly comic-book stuff, complete with a climactic battle aboard a flying fortress. But superhero fantasies have rarely been this emotionally extreme. This is from a script by Alan Moore: it’s not for kids. The Invisible Man is an amoral psychopath and a serial rapist capable of casual murder. Mr. Hyde doesn’t appear to be any better. Alan Quatermain is introduced while in a deep heroin-induced stupor and spends most of the story re-learning how to be heroic. Even Nemo has a rich past as a pirate. All of which makes for a fascinating group dynamic, with portentous implication for their next adventures. (Indeed, I’m told that one particular conflict is settled in a grisly fashion in Volume Two.)

But the real reason to read this graphic novel is in the intricate historical and literary allusions. Moore has performed some heavy-duty research to enhance the credibility of his imagined universe and it shows. From the second page onward, we’re treated to a richly-detailed alternate-universe Victorian England, complete with a bridge across the Channel, cavorite, the Nautilus, Moriarty and references to just about every single known (or less-known) Victorian-era character. This is one comic book worth re-reading, certainly with a concordance in hand. (Check out Jess Nevins’ Heroes & Monsters, an earlier version of which can be found on-line.)

It all amounts to one impressive graphic novel. While I’m not a fan of Moore’s ultra-violent sensibilities nor of Kevin O’Neill’s flat and angular artwork (which, at least, has the merit of looking like a hypothetical Victorian-era comic book), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is definitely something else, a work of brilliance that stands apart from just about anything else you’ve read before. The historical tone is nearly perfect, and the sense of playful storytelling is contagious.

It’s not a surprise to find out that the 2003 film is nothing like the graphic novel. A poor re-imagining without any of the depth in Moore’s writing, the film aims for cheap thrills over intellectual satisfaction. Worse; in botching a good concept and delivering a flat adventure film, it ends up being a less interesting, less exciting work than the original material. You don’t need my recommendation to grab a copy of the graphic novel; just do, already.

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