Tag Archives: Alan Moore

Absolute Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

<em class="BookTitle">Absolute Watchmen</em>, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

DC Comics, 1987 (2005 revision), 464 pages, C$86.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-0713-7

If all goes well, 2009 is going to be the year of Watchmen. Twenty-two years after its groundbreaking 12-issues 1986-1987 run, this graphic novel classic is finally coming to the big screen, and everyone who has thus far managed to avoid it soon won’t have any excuse for picking it up.

I won’t be among those. In the past fifteen years, I’ve read Watchmen several times, in two languages and three different editions. It was one of the first graphic novels I ever owned, and it’s still one of the best. With the movie coming out and the holiday sales around me, I decided to be the ultimate fanboy, and finally get myself a copy of the ultimate, no-expense-spared, re-colored Absolute Watchmen, even if it would prove to be one of my costliest purchases of the year. What can I say; at some point, it’s good to admit being a fan.

It’s even better when considering what one gets from the Absolute Watchmen package: Not only the graphic novel itself, but a handsome full-page slip-cased hardcover edition, along with notes regarding the making and impact of the series, glimpses at the script and miscellaneous bonus artwork. As an extra hefty bonus, the entire series has been re-colored, keeping the old-school style but with the precision of the latest digital technology. (This re-colored version has been kept as the source of the latest reprints of the book, even in cheap paperback editions.) If you’re a real fan with some money to spare, this Absolute Edition is likely to remain the definitive edition of the book for a while longer.

As for the graphic novel itself, well, it’s still just as good as it ever was. A blend of increasingly-alternate history (now that the story’s 1985 seems farther away than ever before, Watchmen is slowly gaining a patina of historical fiction), superhero-fiction, literary sensibilities, action and crackling dialogue, Watchmen marks the turning point of an era in graphic storytelling. It’s the end of the old-school superhero tradition and the “nine-panel grid” era and the beginning of the graphic novels movement and ambitious new thematic vistas for superheroes. The skill in constructing the series, issue by issue, page by page, is still inspiring after all those years. The references, allusions, symbolism, character moments and background complexities of it all remain the standard by which other comparable work is judged. It may not be perfect, but it’s close.

No, the movie won’t be as good: Reading the comics, it’s striking how what the most impressive thing about Watchmen is how fully it exploits the peculiarities of its format, from the nine-panel grid to the type of transition and interleaving that are only possible with comics. Despite the film-makers’ best intentions, I doubt that they’ll do half as well.

But no matter: Regardless of how the movie turns out, Watchmen-the-book is going to stay on the shelves, ready for another generation of readers. As for me, I’ve found my favorite edition of the story, and that’s the one that’s going to stay in my library until I get an itch to re-read the story again. Most probably moments after seeing the movie’s end credits.

[January 2009: Watchmen already selling like hotcakes, the biggest literary movie tie-in product is a companion book called Watching the Watchmen, co-written by the series’ artist Dave Gibbons. The bulk of the book is a series of sketches for the series, straight from Gibbons’ archives. But the most interesting things about Watching the Watchmen are scattered in-between the sketches, as Gibbons writes about the process of creating Watchmen, and its impact. It’s interesting, but hardly earth-shattering: For anyone who’s less than a convinced fan of the series, there’s nothing truly essential about this companion book, especially if you have already read the back pages of Absolute Watchmen. It may be a cool gift, or an extravagant indulgence, but otherwise I’d recommend investing in a copy of the definitive absolute edition.]

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.

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

Eddie Campbell Comics, 1999, 572 pages, US$35.00 tpb, ISBN 0-9585783-4-6

In the world of sequential art, From Hell is a classic for a reason: As a thick 550+ pages paperback, it represents what many artists and critics envision when they speak of “graphic novels”. Exquisitely well researched, created over a number of years, tackling a difficult subject with skill, From Hell also achieved considerable success by just about any standard. It sold well, immediately earned a permanent place on most lists of essential graphic novels and was even adapted in a film released in late 2001. The film wasn’t particularly good, but that’s the way it goes with just about any adaptation. It’s far better to focus on the graphics novel itself.

Writer Alan Moore spent years learning all he could find on the subject of “Jack the Ripper”, the infamous serial killer who terrorized London’s seedy Whitechapel area in 1888. Consciously picking a royal conspiracy theory as a dramatic framework on which to hang a number of historical details, Moore produced a massive story that tackles a lot more than simply Jack the Ripper. Elements of mysticism, secret societies, psychological drama and police work all infuse From Hell with a vitality that has ensured its success. You can’t read it and avoid being stunned by the result, which is every bit as complex -in its own way- as a meaty prose novel.

From Hell starts leisurely and ends just as slowly, eschewing typical dramatic structure in order to delve more fully in the tapestry of 1888-era London. The main character, so to speak, is royal doctor William Gull, a man whose visions of a greater future dovetail nicely with an assassination edict delivered by Queen Victoria. From Hell is as much a psychological study of the life of a man than it’s a thriller about a serial killer.

The attention to detail is astonishing, a fact best appreciated when perusing Moore’s voluminous Appendix 1: “Annotations to the Chapters”. Nearly every page of From Hell is accompanied with notes on sources, reference and suppositions. (The best way to read those notes is to glance at them periodically as you make your way through the novel.) This thirst for precision is carried over to Eddie Campbell’s black-and-white line illustrations, whose deceptively draft-like nature hide a tremendous amount of period detail. I’m not a far of that particular style of artwork (it can be difficult, at times, to distinguish characters or even to appreciate the amount of effort put into the drawings), but the art’s rough quality can be a relief considering the novel’s frank depiction of violence and sexual activities: From Hell is a graphic novel in all senses of the expression.

Moore never pretends to offer “the” solution to he Ripper murders: He’s quite up-front, in the Appendices, in stating that he just picked the theory that offered the most dramatic interest. One of the book’s best passage is Appendix 2: “Dance of the Gull Catchers”, an illustrated essay in which Moore describes the various theories that have emerged over the years about Jack the Ripper, and the particular mania that afflicts all Ripperologists –including Moore himself. In twenty-four short pages, Moore reflects on the nature of murder, the appeal of Rippermania and how the “gull-catchers” are condemned in digging a pit from which nothing will ever emerge.

As for the novel itself, well, it’s a masterpiece. While the art isn’t particularly impressive or innovative (the entire layout remains rigidly faithful to a classic nine-by-nine comics grid), it creates an impression of doom that’s hard to shake away. What’s more remarkable is how it deals with complex and difficult subjects in a way that seldom feels exploitative –and this despite an entire twenty-four pages murder sequence that may be too gruesome for many readers.

In the end, it’s the quality of the writing that makes the whole thing stand together. Don’t pre-judge the novel based on the film, which is so hilariously mis-adapted that it could be a warning for all writers signing away their derivative rights. From Hell isn’t particularly pleasant, but it’s deeply impressive. Not simply worth a look as “a graphic novel”, few will dispute its place as an authentic piece of criminal literature. Bookstores should have it shelved alongside Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume II, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

American’s Best Comics, 2003, 224 pages, C$22.95 hc, ISBN 1-4012-0118-0

After the critical and popular success of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I (the comic book, not the movie), the expected sequel took its time to appear, and in doing so raised expectations to an unattainable level. Now that Volume II is on bookshelves in a trade paperback format, everyone can be disappointed for less money than the hardcover edition.

As suggested on the last page of the prequel, this sequel deals with a Martian invasion of England. Once again, our Extraordinary Gentlemen are sent to investigate. What they find seems to be safely contained within an impact crater, but as we may expect from those type of stories, things don’t remain under control for too long: it doesn’t take two issues for the English countryside to be set ablaze. But if you think that the Martians are the only problem, you’ll be sorely mistaken: Tensions between members of the League, simmering since the Volume I, are finally allowed to boil over. Terrible things happen. More literary references are made. Two (maybe three) graphic sex scenes occur. The Martians are vanquished. The book ends.

If the violence in Volume I made you uneasy, Volume II is much worse. It’s not simply a matter of thousands of people dying through the Martian invasions (some of them in a gruesome fashion; being burnt alive is not a pretty death, even in comic form), but also of very personal violence between the protagonists of the tale. Issue 5 alone will make more than one reader queasy. The violence is not without consequences; Moore alters the series so significantly that whatever League composes the rumoured Volume III won’t look anything like this one. (Don’t lose hope, though: the appended prose “New Traveller’s Almanac” describes more than a few further adventures for the surviving characters), The least we can say is that the go-for-broke dramatic intensity of this adventure is a refreshing change from comic book series designed to last decades in static patterns.

What is unfortunate, however, is that the League’s actions in this adventure seem far more passive and limited than in the prequel. Most of Issue 1 is spent on Mars, in a prologue that seems as drawn-out as superfluous. For the longest time, The League simply looks at what’s happening with scarcely any progress. Then, as it splinters in interpersonal conflicts, the big heroics come when two members of the League are used as glorified messengers. The same lack of explicit action also plagued Volume I, but to a lesser extent given how it was counter-balanced by the formation of the League. Here, half the characters are wasted. Plot-wise, Volume 2 is just a disappointment.

Naturally, the simple fact that this is a sequel works against its impact. We’re already familiar with the imagined world of Moore’s pastiche. We already know how The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a mash-up of Victorian-era heroes. We already think that this is a piece of genius. We already played with fascinating elements from the period. While H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau are not trifles, they can’t compete with the heady spin of the first volume’s constant invention. Oh well.

For fans of the first book, the sequel is still worth a look if only to bring the story to a natural conclusion. Moore’s writing definitely has its moments —though the motivation in one villain deciding to turn against the league seems highly suspect. Even if I’m still not a big fan of Kevin O’Neill’s deliberately stylized work, it features a dynamism and a gorgeous use of colour that’s pleasant to see. The playfulness of the concept is still strong enough that anyone with even the slightest interest in Victorian literature will get another kick out of this. But please: no movie sequel.

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.