The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

America’s Best Comics, 2007, 208 pages, US$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-0306-1

This is quite a remarkable… thing.

It’s not a novel, and not quite a comic book. It plays games with the reader and works better as a multi-format trans-genre kick than a cohesive narrative. It’s certainly a paean to the mad genius of Alan Moore, but I doubt that it will be fully understandable by anyone but him. It’s a stunning, almost electrifying demonstration that publishing is still, in this digital era, a process that results in a tangible object. It makes you wonder why such playful pieces of multi-format meta-fiction aren’t more popular. In short, I’m pretty excited about it, but I’m not sure if my recommendation will convince anyone else, or if I will even be able to convey why I’m so enthusiastic about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier despite its flaws.

The first thing to understand is that this is definitely a book best read by those who have followed, dissected and obsessed over the first two volumes of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series. (Never speak of the movie. There was no movie. If you think there was a movie, you are wrong.) The first volume was about construction in showing how a group of special characters was brought together in an alternate Victorian-era England to combat a terrible menace. The second was about destruction in detailing how the League, in fighting the Martian invasion, fell apart after violent squabbling between its members.

This third volume is about reconstruction, or maybe deconstruction. We still begin in London, but the plot has moved forward, past the second volume’s description of the “further adventures of the League” and into the nineteen-fifties. Very different nineteen-fifties, taking place shortly after the ten-year reign of the Big Brother regime. As the book opens, Wilhelmina Murray (now sporting a fetching shade of blonde) allows herself to be seduced by an arrogant so-called “spy” named Jimmy. But there’s more to this than a tryst with an unflattering caricature of James Bond: Before long, Wilhelmina and companion Allan Quartermain have knocked him out of commission, and used his access to the MI6 files to retrieve a “Black Dossier” filled with information about the Leagues over the centuries. The rest of the book is spent reading over their shoulders as they study the dossier and try to escape from London to another realm entirely.

But the plot is not the point. The point is allowing Moore to reposition the series’ mythology in anticipation of the next entry in the League’s saga. Readers may have thought that Moore had said it all when his concluded his second tome with an atlas of the League’s discoveries, but it turns out that he was just scratching the surface: Once Black Dossier is over, it becomes obvious that he has redefined his imaginary world to include everything imaginary.

Part of this freedom can be explained by the fact that Black Dossier was never serialized as a series of comic books: It was conceived and delivered as a single unit, and that has allowed Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill to take dramatic liberties with the format of the book. Beyond the usual comic book pages, the titular black dossier is presented in a dramatically different sections that would have been impossible to fit in the usual comic mass-market booklet: A naughty sequel to Fanny Hill is presented on thick linen paper, a Big-Brother-era “Tijuana Bible” is presented on cheap postcard-sized pulp stock… and that’s not even discussing the amount of nudity that O’Neill has allowed himself to draw in a book that won’t be carelessly picked up by the superhero crowd. (My edition of Black Dossier came shrink-wrapped. Other editions reportedly have uncut pages for the naughtier bits.)

I could say that nothing can prepare you for the last surprise, but that’s not true: The book comes bundled with a pair of 3D glasses for an excellent reason. Wilhelmina and Allan’s last stop is the legendary Blazing World alluded to in the second volume, here portrayed in deliciously amusing red-and-blue 3D over seventeen detail-crammed pages. Jokes and vertiginous details abound, and everything ends on a meta-speech (delivered by a thinly-disguised Moore avatar) about the importance of fiction in shaping reality.

And I’ve skipped over some of the best bits, such as the detour via a British spaceport, the lost Shakespeare play featuring the beginnings of the first League, the leggy presence of Emma Peel and a hilarious tale in which P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertram Wooster comes face-to-face with the League and a Lovecraftian horror.

It’s hard to be too disappointed with this grab-bag of brainy fun, but I can make a good case that Black Dossier‘s appeal is far more cryptic than its predecessors. Big Brother aside, the cultural references are more opaque and the on-line companions are more essential than ever before. The slight chase story is a pleasant framing device for including all of the fun stuff, but it’s still a disappointment after the more interesting plots of the first volumes. There’s also a clear sense that this is an intermission, that the real third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is still to come.

For established fans, this is unlikely to be a problem. This is more of the stuff we’ve liked so much, and it definitely whets the appetite for another volume. The inclusion of more daring pieces, the carefully crafted design of the book, the extra freedom that Moore has enjoyed in making this book as a single unit are all exciting portents of things to come as the graphical novel weans itself off the tyranny of monthly periodical distribution. But these are esoteric areas of excitement, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Black Dossier feels incomprehensible to newcomers. But that’s all right; newer readers should start at the beginning (remember: the movie doesn’t exist), bookmark Jess Nevin’s site and they’ll become converts in no time.

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