Writer: Alan Moore ~ Artist: Kevin O’Neill ~ Colours: Ben Dimagmaliw ~ Publisher: Top Shelf/Knockabout ~ Year: 2011
Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)
The Low-Down: The long-awaited latest volume of Comics Mastermind Alan Moore’s exploration of pulp fiction continues the eccentric course begun with the first instalment of the Century trilogy back in 2009. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969 is a trippy, explict and disturbing trip through the dark side of the Sixties that’s full of amazing moments, even if it never quite reaches the heights of previous volumes.
What’s it About?: Eleven years after recovering the Black Dossier, the remaining members of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – the immortal trio Wilhemina Murray, Allan Quartermain and Orlando – return to the now Swinging London of 1969. There’s evidence that the satanic cult they tracked in 1910 is once again active, and dark forces are linking the worlds of hedonistic pop stars and criminal gangsters. But as one particular rock star aims for a spectacular live performance in Hyde Park, our immortal heroes find themselves in darker danger than they suspected…
The Story: Patience. That’s the main ingredient for being a fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series that’s been published on an increasingly irregular schedule for the last eleven years (a fact that hasn’t been helped by author Alan Moore’s regular run-ins with major comics publishers, resulting in the series being moved from DC imprint Wildstorm to indie publishers Top Shelf and Knockabout). Even with the current trilogy of volumes, what was originally scheduled to be published from 2008-2009 might finally be finished in 2012 if we’re incredibly lucky (although 2013 is probably a safer estimate), but with the infamously outspoken Moore finally stepping away from all mainstream comics work, the LOEG is a project that looks to always follow its own bizarre pace. Moore and O’Neill are going to go at the speed they’re comfortable with, no matter how frustrating it might be.
It probably helps that the LOEG saga has, since the climax of the HG Wells-influenced Volume 2, been gradually stepping away from its Victorian pulp origins, embracing the ludicrous ambition of Volume 2’s head-spinning ‘New Traveller’s Almanac’ text portions, which mapped out an entire world and history based entirely on myth, legend and fiction of all shapes and sizes. Since 2007’s The Black Dossier, the League’s story has been a much stranger one – there’s still the sense of subversive adventure and the overturning of pulp archetypes, but the quest to push into ever weirder and wilder worlds of fiction has given the book a much riskier feel. It’s part romp, part twisted satire, part intellectual treasure-hunt, part spot-the-reference (with every single named character (and plenty of the background extras in certain panels) being a reference to another work of fiction), and since the start of the Century trilogy, things have only got weirder, wilder and more obscure.
This brings us to Century 1969, a volume that gives us the most modern version of the League world yet, crashing us into a brightly coloured and vividly trippy version of Sixties London that melds fiction, music and history into a pretty damn heady brew. While Century 1910 felt closer in tone to Moore’s Martian-centric second volume, this is much closer to The Black Dossier in both style and execution, with Moore taking on a whole series of Sixties-related characters, as well as having to do a lot of careful tiptoeing around certain names in order to avoid major copyright trouble. Featuring a cast of gangsters and drugged-out pop stars, there’s no surprise that there’s a hefty dose of controversial 1970 cult movie Performance and 1971 gangster classic Get Carter in the mix, with Moore’s story build a genuinely unsettling atmosphere as it builds to its mind-bending Hyde Park climax.
There’s all the wit, intelligence and playfulness that you’d expect, along with a predictably bleak and downbeat ending that sets things up for the trilogy’s final volume in a memorable way – and Moore also builds on the seeds laid down in Century 1910, with Mina’s perception of her own immortality once again changing, eventually pushing her in some surprising directions. Underneath the colourful gags, the savage violence and the head-spinning references, there’s a very pointed examination of the Sixties going on here, as well as a look at the way fiction evolves with the times (embodied in Mina’s determinedly ‘groovy’ behaviour). Along with this, there’s a sense of cynical despair at the passage of time and the development of fiction that’s hard not to read as partly thanks to Moore’s disillusionment with most mainstream entertainment (and especially comics and movies).
Thanks to this, Century 1969 may be never less than a fascinating read, but it’s not always a fun one either. A lot of this is simply the level of references – it helps to know a lot about Sixties pop culture (I was especially pleased to see the title character from Adam Adamant Lives! making an appearence), but even then there’s a tremendous amount in Century 1969 that’s pitched at a level you’re never going to appreciate without doing research (or consulting Jess Nevins’ excellent online footnotes, which helped me out with a number of references I’d never have spotted without help). There are points where the story feels in danger of disappearing into the realms of literary/pop culture game, with the danger that it’s very easy for a reader to feel excluded from the moments where they don’t get the joke. Moore doesn’t feel as interested in carrying the reader along for the ride here as he did earlier in the LOEG saga, and there are certain sequences that simply end up perplexing and confusing rather than adventurous and satirical (especially the bizarre scene involving a certain ‘Jack C’ and a moustachioed midget).
It’s partly down to being the flipside of the increasingly offbeat identity of the League saga – no matter how much fun the original two volumes were with their energetic pulp adventure, Moore could easily have run that concept into the ground. Instead, in the exact opposite stance of most mainstream comics (at which Moore aims a couple of subtle barbs during Century 1969), he’s opened it out and changed it so that every single League story is different in style and approach. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is still one of the most distinctive, daring and demented cult comic experiences currently available, but Century 1969 has a few too many points where the joke is starting to wear thin, and the chase to keep up with the trail of references and in-jokes gets a little wearing here. Moore is still ploughing his own individualistic furrow, and should be applauded for that – it’s just a pity that he’s not always bringing his audience along for the ride…
The Art: One area where the League is still as strong as ever, however, is in its visuals. The only artist to ever have his entire artistic style declared ‘objectionable’ by the Comics Code Authority (back in 1986), Kevin O’Neill has a massively distinctive and individual look to his work that’s only gotten crazier over the years. Angular and detailed, his art is closer to the grotesque of old-school English illustrators like Hogarth than traditional superhero comics, and the League has suited him down to the ground from day one, matching Moore’s creativity and imagination note for note. Century 1969 sees him shifting gears again, and from the dour atmospherics of the gangland sequences to the hilariously extreme and imaginative acid trip, it’s breathtaking work that’s strongly backed up with Ben Dimagmaliw’s eye-popping colours. An extra note of applause has to go to Todd Klein, one of the best letterers in the business, who goes to even more imaginative extremes, making this a visually stunning and arresting experience.
The Verdict: Any new readers shouldn’t even consider starting here – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969 is a distinctive and often extreme tale that won’t be for everyone, and doesn’t quite live up to previous volumes in the series. However, if the mix of pulp adventure, off-beat satire and literary game-play is up your street, then this volume will still give you plenty to chew on – just don’t hold your breath for volume 3, as we may be in for a long wait…