Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Century: 1910: Opera is not my forte

Elsewhere: I reviewed Dark Reign: The Hood #1 at Comics Bulletin.  Enjoy?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Century: 1910
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Kevin O'Neill

It's always difficult to fully understand any of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, since Alan Moore packs them so full of references and jokes that even the most well-read observers will still miss a few.  We've always got Jess Nevins' annotations to fill us in on what we missed, but being able to spot things without having to look them up always makes one feel especially smart.  Of course, the series wouldn't work as nothing more than one reference after another (and that's the criticism some leveled at the last book, The Black Dossier), so luckily Alan Moore is always reliable when it comes to good stories as well.  The unfortunate thing here is that this is only the first part of a sweeping, epic volume, and so it ends leaving the reader feeling unfulfilled, with the promise that further installments will eventually provide answers.

For this third volume of the series (Black Dossier apparently counts as a side story, rather than a proper volume), we start with the team in 1910, with the next two volumes spanning the rest of the twentieth century for some long-range plotting.  For now, the team consists of old stalwarts Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain (posing as his own son after having gained immortality), joined by supernatural detective Thomas Carnacki, master thief A.J. Raffles, and the ambiguously-gendered Orlando.  They spend the volume investigating mysterious portents and visions, but don't actually do much; the story seems to be unfolding around them, leaving them powerless to do anything about it.  

No, the real story here is a takeoff on Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera, which involves a murderous madman with a possible connection to Jack the Ripper and a street singer, at least to the extent that we see here.  Most of the opera's story takes place off-panel, but those two characters both get to serenade readers with commentary on current goings-on, their speech balloons dancing with musical notes so we know they are singing.  We also see Captain Nemo's daughter Janni try to leave behind her oppressive home and strike out on her own, becoming a menial laborer in the slums of London and learning the real, nasty way of the world.  She ends up experiencing a rather brutal loss of innocence and embracing her origins, providing the big action for the book.

Whether it's due to unfamiliarity with the opera material or the ineffectiveness of the League, this book ends up being somewhat unsatisfying, although one can definitely see some pieces being set in place for the next issues.  Mina and company end up on a wild goose chase, trying to find some information about a secret society of occultists led by Oliver Haddo (a stand-in for Aleister Crowley), but coming up empty and only barely showing up for the big action scene.  They'll probably end up confronting the danger more directly in the future, but not so much here.  Things are still pretty interesting though, mostly because of all the crazy details and references, but also because of the nice characterization.  Allan and Mina have settled into a long-term relationship by this point, and their new colleagues are rather interesting additions, especially Orlando, who comes off as a flamboyant, snarky boaster, always talking about his exploits with people like Sinbad and Prospero and referring to people as "dear".

It makes for an interesting read, with standout bits being the appearance of Andrew Norton, the "Prisoner of London" who is moored in place but unstuck in time, and the lengthy text piece that makes such diverse references as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fletcher Hanks' Stardust the Super Wizard. But it's not the satisfying bit of metafictional action that the previous books were, although that will probably be remedied by future installments.  

In the meantime, we can definitely examine the book just to try to absorb the intricacies of Kevin O'Neill's artwork, which is as gorgeous as ever (and looks pretty amazing under Ben Dimagmaliw's colors).  His talent is especially astonishing here, rendering hundreds of characters against detailed backgrounds, some of which, like Nemo's domain, are quite fanciful, yet still real-seeming:

And the character art is wonderful, with expressions revealing emotions clearly, in a way that doesn't seem like overacting (at least, not where it counts; the women are the people to watch in the panel below):

It's full of funny details too, like the crazy expressions on the carousers above.  And when it comes to action, O'Neill delivers, with explosions and fires lighting up the panels, and plenty of blood and gore resulting from the fighting.  It's the kind of thing that disturbs in the midst of providing entertainment; very striking stuff.

So overall, I think I was a bit disappointed with this issue, but found plenty to satisfy nonetheless.  Moore can always be counted on to deliver a comic packed with information and detail, and O'Neill really rises to the occasion.  Hopefully, future issues will deliver on the promise that is set up here; I have no reason to believe they won't.