Keep Calm and Carry On (Brief thoughts on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier)

There’s very few things in life that will get me so giddy that I’ll be bouncing around with joy, or the sight of which in a shop will have me almost shrieking “Oh my god, where did THAT come from?” and reaching for my wallet. One of them, however, is anything relating to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – not the quite frankly dreadful movie (A film so bad, it’s the only time I’ve ever walked out of the cinema- admittedly, it was a second showing (Frightfest’s ‘surprise movie’ that year turned out to be an unwelcome one), but I really couldn’t put myself through that again), but the original comic book, a joyously inventive romp from the team of comics god and magnificently bearded magician Alan Moore and fantastically stylised illustrator Kevin O’Neill, which started as a Victorian Adventure team-up between various characters including the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo and Allan Quartermain, and has evolved outwards to become an exploration of storytelling and an attempt to map the world of fiction. It’s an absurdly ambitious target, and with the Black Dossier- originally conceived as a ‘sourcebook’ which then transformed into a graphic novel with a multitude of different styles (including a dazzling 3-D), the ambition has officially gotten larger. I’ve been waiting for a year for this – troubles with DC Comics have delayed it again and again (and also resulted in it not legally being published in Britain, one of the reasons I was so stunned to see it last night. I walked into a comic store, saw it, went “WHAT!?” and leapt on it so quickly I may have frightened the sales assistant. It was their last copy, and I literally bounced with happiness from the store…), and the next League series is being done by indie publishers Top Shelf, but whatever the reasons, it’s been worth it.

The Black Dossier is an amazing piece of work, shifting the world of the League out of Victoriana and closer to the present day, this time taking place in the post-War Britain of the 1950s. Of course, this is also a Britain that’s just emerging from the trials of the ‘Big Brother’ government, and as two ‘associates’ of the previous League try to hunt down a mysterious dossier containing the history of the League itself, we get a chase, lots of spacecraft and daring escapes, a massive variety of storytelling techniques (including a hilarious meeting between Bertie Wooster and the creatures of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos), and a serious amount of sex. Having relatively recently finished his exploration of sexuality and erotica with Lost Girls, it’s obvious Moore has carried over a lot into the world of the League, and the darker, harsher edges present in Volume 2 are even more prevailant here (especially when dealing with a certain Martini-drinking secret agent). There’s a frankness to it that’s sometimes a little shocking, but then part of the theme of the book is the way the old world is evolving into the new, and how much of this process isn’t necessarily a pleasent one. On top of this, there’s the joy of trying to spot the multitude of references – many flew by me (thank heavens for Jess Nevins and his fantastic collection of League Annotations), but I was pleased to spot a good few more than I expected. There are moments in The Black Dossier when the iconoclasm feels a touch overdone, or when the rip-roaring classic simplicity of the original League series seems to be missing, but these are tiny flaws, and there’s simply nobody even attempting work of the scale and ambition that Moore and O’Neill are aiming for, particularly in the final 3-D section that pulls off some tricks that I’ve simply never seen done before.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is one of the few comics left that I will hunt down the second it comes out. It’s also, in a brief moment of pride, one of the first times I discovered that I could think up crazy stuff and it could actually get published– the original series had, for only four issues, a letters page, and I actually got a letter printed on the final letter collumn to appear, in issue 6 of the first League series.

The whole letter collumn was done in a fake Victorian style, with some hilarious responses from the Editor, and plenty of the letters cottonned onto this. I only actually sent something because I had recently discovered e-mail (this was back in 2000), and the idea of actually being able to easily send a fan letter was too good to pass up. Plus, I had a decent idea for something wacky to write, so I wrote the following:

To the most esteemed Editor of “The League…”–

Humble greetings to you, kind sir.

Having been a longtime admirer of the work of the Northampton Nightingale, from his initial mad scribblings in the pages of 1900AD and Professor What Weekly, through such classics as V for Veronica, The Miracle Chap, and the touching Bog Watcher, I have always felt this crazed madman to have his twitching finger on the pulse of the penny dreadful. Although glad he is locked away in his turreted castle with only a pen, some paper, and a bottle of Vicks Vapour Rub for company, his is obviously a madness that looks upon the world with a keen eye, and a saucy demeanour. Who can forget the seaside-postcard humour of Hatchmen, or the raucous smut of The Ballad of Herod Jones?

Alas, for so long I have been concerned that, after an obvious change in this strange lunatic’s medication, he has currently turned his attention in stranger directions, resulting in two blustery and confounding visions – Voice of the Fireman, and the frankly lewd and unsavoury tale entitled From Helsinki. Was the gentle penny dreadful to be abandoned forever? Would the Northampton Nightingale now only lie in a laudanam-induced haze, imbibing boiled sweets and asking for the furry lizard to be put out?

Well, hurrah for the cunning coves of America’s Best Comics for persuading the finest purveyor of this most disposable yet pleasing medium of graphic adventuring to return to the fold with a ripping tale of the Empire’s finest! Yes, I say to you sir that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the tale that shows Britain at its greatest! Glory in our achievements, and marvel at the sight of Johnny Foreigner getting what-for at the hands of the true servants of the crown! Every issue has been a marvel (even though I have had to assassinate several dealers in order to obtain issues 1-3. Kindly rectify this situation as soon as possible), full to the brim with comely English virtues and ripping adventure, and I await the arrival of the concluding part of this picture periodical with unwavering levels of glee! All hail to the Northampton Nightingale, and all hail The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen!

Yours,

Brigadier Alisdair Gordon Smyth-Redbridge Phillips-Ogilby Smurt Bycoonar Fothiringay Britches Chaffinch Wiper, late of the Third Fifty Foot Rifles, Africa Campaign.

Dictated by Saxon Bullock, Esq, in deepest South London. Sent by Electro Magneto.

I’ve had an awful lot published since then, and been paid for most of it, and yet there’s very little that’s equalled the sheer sense of thrill when I saw that my letter had actually made it in. It’s still one of my fondest memories, and The League… is just one of those works that points in so many directions and references so much that it’s like the edge of an iceberg. It’ll remain important to me for as long as Moore and O’Neill keep doing it, and if they can keep going as dark, different and adventurous as they’ve gone with the Black Dossier, the sky is the limit for the upcoming three-book Volume 3 “Century”, due out in 2008 – although knowing the way the League works out, I guess I’d better be prepared for a long wait…

Still, I’ve had my fix of the League for now, and I’m still fantastically happy. Life is officially good…

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