Thursday, December 20, 2007

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier: What ho, Magus! Or, Alan Moore is an old dirty bastard

I was going to wait and review one or two other things before I got to this, but I got thinking about it today and have to get my thoughts down. So, enjoy. And by the way, this is post number 420. Duuude, enjoy the trippiness.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Kevin O'Neill

I gotta say, this book makes me feel pretty dumb. I'm sure at least half of the references here go way over my head, so when I do get one, I clap my hands like a second-grader receiving a gold star. That's the power of Alan Moore: he makes me feel stupid, then slightly smart. But I'm probably not alone there; he's woven so much literary and artistic history into this series, pretty much nobody is going to get all of it. Even Jess Nevins got lots of help with his annotations. And by the way, those annotations are invaluable; I read most of the book without looking at them, then went back to see what I was missing, and it was a lot. I'm sure I would have never figured out that "Mr. Night's daughter" was Emma Peel, for instance. And I would never have realized the incredible, almost obvious awesomeness of connecting a comic strip about British schoolkids to Orwell's Big Brother and The Third Man's Harry Lime. On the other hand, I'm sure some of the fun here is trying to see how much you can figure out on your own, so maybe they should only be a last resort. And they do get a little bit pedantic at times; I didn't really need the meaning of "Oodles O'Quim" explained to me, and I could figure out for myself what "will-gill" means. But overall they really enrich the reading of the book.

Which I suppose I should talk about, since this is a review of that book, after all. It seems to be meeting a somewhat poor reception in critical quarters, but that might be due to extremely high expectations. Me, I found the whole thing to be delightful, a rousing adventure tale and an amazing collection of Moore-ian impersonations of other authors. And the comic surrounding the dossier sections is no slouch either. The previous volumes of the League's adventures have been some really good comics, but they were large-scale adventure tales, smart, epic, action-movie-style stories utilizing every possible literary reference that could be crammed in. But here, Moore is going for something different; he seems to be trying to expand what is possible in this Wold Newton-esque world that incorporates every fictional character ever created. He's giving us a history, filling in the margins with stories and details that we've only previously imagined. And he's not just reciting dry facts, he's doing it in the style of more stories, since that's where all these characters and settings originally came from anyway. It's like opening your eyes to an aspect of this universe that you never even considered.

The framing story works pretty well too, letting us know what Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain, the last surviving remnants of the League as we know it, are up to in 1958. They start the book off by stealing the titular Black Dossier, and as the story progresses, they read through it, and we get to see what they're reading. But every so often, they pause in their reading so they can have more adventures, escape the clutches of the British government, and discover more secrets, leading to the big ending revelation, which will surely have a big impact on future League stories. I'll get to more about that later, but I wanted to look at the contents of the Dossier. It's an amazing collection of diverse works, so I figured I would look at each of them and give my thoughts, starting with:

The first page: Large red block letters reading: "THIS WARN YOU", and a bunch of 1984-ian Newspeak that had me cracking up. "Everything not banned compulsory. Everything not compulsory banned." It's a great beginning.

On the Descent of the Gods: This is "written" by Oliver Haddo, which was apparently a pseudonym of Aleister Crowley. Gotta love those annotations! It's an essay about occult mythology, seemingly tying Lovecraftian extra-dimensional beasties into pretty much every instance of gods, faeiries, or supernatural beings in human history. A good way to begin the Dossier, since it makes known the themes of supernatural beings that dominate this book. Pretty interesting, too.

The Trump: A British-style comic, most of which tells the life of Virginia Woolf's immortal, multisexual Orlando. But the first page has a funny strip about the sisters from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? that manages to reference Joan Crawford's wire hangers and Rock Hudson's homosexuality. It's kind of a throwaway gag (or several), but it's funny. The real content is the Orlando stuff, which is incredibly dense, since it covers 3000 years of history in eighteen pages. I got a lot of the references, but missed many more. I think the gag about the Mona Lisa was my favorite bit:

I didn't really know anything about Orlando before reading this, except that he/she was a creation of Virginia Woolf, so it was pretty interesting. And, like the whole book, impressive, in that Moore managed to make him/her fit in so many other stories and historical events. The scope of the section is pretty impressive. And I should mention Kevin O'Neill's excellent art here; the level of detail he puts into this section is amazing. He's using a slightly different sort of style to fit the type of comic being emulated, and it's wonderful stuff. Oh, and the back page is a jokey strip about a family visiting a zoo full of aliens, and it contains Triffids and Tralfamadorians! Awesome!

Faerie's Fortunes Founded: This supposed lost Shakespeare play (or portion thereof) is pretty enjoyable, but I don't know if it's all that Shakespearean. For one, it's supposed to be the entire first act, but there isn't really any conflict introduced or hint of a plot. It's really just an excuse to tell the story of the formation of the League in an enjoyable manner. And it is pretty fun, with some nice dialogue and good jokes. But it doesn't seem like actual Shakespeare to me (although I'm hardly an English scholar, so I could be way off here). And naming characters Pysse and Shytte is funny, but seems a bit "on the nose". Sure, Shakespeare had plenty of dirty jokes, but that's a bit too obvious, if you ask me. But some of the lines are great, like Orlando's wowing of the doormen with orchid-based rhymes (which reminded me of V's alliterative soliloquy in V for Vendetta), or Queen Gloriana's dissembling about her genitalia. And it's cool to see the origin of the League, along with 007 and M.

There's also an essay about whether the play is genuine or not, which is amusing, recalling the debates about whether or not Shakespeare actually existed.

The New Adventures of Fanny Hill: I also wasn't previously familiar with Fanny Hill, but, man, it must have been dirty. This is prose with illustrations, and its very funny stuff, with the titular (pun intended this time!) character having sexual escapades all across the fictional world. On the second page, she meets Moll Flanders, who advises her to use euphemism when describing her adventures so people won't be too scandalized. And use it she does! Every pages is chock full of double entendres, and they're hilarious. "Mound of Venus", indeed! This is another spot where Moore makes tons of references that I don't get, but he still tells an entertaining story. And once again, Kevin O'Neill provides some incredible illustrations, full of dirty, dirty details:

There's a joke about Brobdingnagians here that had me gasping at its pornographic audicity. The section is also printed on a thicker paper stock to make it seem like a printed pamphlet, I guess. The only think I wonder about is its length; it seems pretty short. Was the original Fanny Hill over so quickly? I know we don't need a full-length novel here, but it might have seemed more authentic if we had just seen an excerpt. These are the kinds of nitpicks I'm reduced to making here, when presented with brilliance. Sorry, folks.

Gulliver's Travails: A scatological political cartoon. Funny. See the annotations for an example of a similar 18th century cartoon. I don't have much else to say about this one.

A True and Faithful Map of Ye Blazing Worlde: It's interesting-looking, and sort of heightens the mystery about this "blazing world" that has been mentioned here and there in the book so far, but there's not much to it. I did try looking at it with the 3-D glasses to see if there was somehow some hidden information (since there is a note about wearing "variously glass'd pince-nez...comprised of ruby and of em'rald both"), but I didn't see anything. It's probably just a warning about wearing the glasses when you read the bit at the end.

Shadows in the Steam: A report about the formation of "the Murray League", which is the version of the team we're most familiar with. It's kind of dry, until it gets to an excerpt from Mina's report about her mission to recruit Captain Nemo. That's interesting enough, but not exactly essential stuff.

The Nautilus, a cutaway schematic: A double-page spread with lots of details of the Nautilus. It's cool, but not my favorite bit at all. I was never one for the Official Marvel Handbook, or whatever those books were that had all the diagrams of comics characters' equipment and whatnot.

A Prospectus of London, 1901: Like a tourist map, showing significant spots where the League had adventures. Stuff from the first two volumes of the series. Interesting, but still inessential (although I liked the "here be south Londoners" gag).

The Murray Group, Correspondence, 1899-1913: Now that we're getting into the League's undetailed (so far) adventures, it gets more interesting. In an official report, we learn about Mina and Allan's travels after the events of the second volume, and the other Leagues they formed, with Raffles, Carnacki, and Orlando (again). It's interesting stuff that will probably be explored further in future volumes (and maybe some of it in the text pieces of volume two, which I haven't read), and there are some nifty postcards that they sent from places like Arkham, Toyland, and the Paris Opera. Cool!

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A description of two other League-like groups, from Germany and France. The German one has Dr. Mabuse, Dr. Caligari, and the robot from Metropolis. The French group has characters like Arsene Lupin and Fantomas. Pretty cool, especially the description of the League's battle with the French group in the Paris Opera. I don't know if we'll get to see more of this in a future volume, but I hope so.

What Ho, Gods of the Abyss: Oh, man, this is probably my favorite part of the book; it's absolutely hilarious. Combining P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster with Lovecraftian horror is a stroke of genius, and some of the descriptions here had me laughing out loud. A bit where Wooster has a conversation with a gardener who has been possessed by an Elder God (or whatever; I'm not a Lovecraft expert) is gold; he keeps talking about an Indian chief named Cool Lulu who is sleeping at a place called Riley. Funny, funny stuff.

When They Sound the Last All Clear: A report about Mina and Allan's activities between the first and second world wars, with an bit "written" by Mina about meeting with the Prime Minister and deciding to flee to the United States to escape the impending Big Brother regime. Interesting information, but the best bit is a propaganda picture that says "Watch Out - Adenoid's About!" I love that Moore has replaced Hitler with Charlie Chaplin's Adenoid Hitler in his universe.

The Warralson Team, 1946-1947: A description of a failed version of the League assembled in Mina and Allan's absence. This one's pretty interesting, since it seems (to me) to be a commentary on poor imitations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the comic, perhaps even the movie that was based on it. The powers-that-be assembled a facsimile of the original team, including a strong woman leader, an explorer/rifleman, a guy with a submarine, and invisible man, and a hulking monstrosity. It was a pale, slavish imitation, and it failed, not having the charm or staying power of the real thing. I might be reading too much into it though, but the message should at least be that if you're going to try something similar to this series, do your own thing rather than imitating others' success.

The Crazy Wide Forever: Oh, boy. This was probably the only part of the book I found tedious, and somewhat of a chore to finish. Of course, I haven't read any Beat writing, so I'm not familiar with the style, but this jumble of language is so hard to follow that it's almost not worth it. But after I stuck with it for a while, I started to be able to follow the rhythm of the language, and it worked okay. But it's still pretty rough going. I dunno, maybe it's a good Kerouac impression, but it makes for some slow going. I do like the "cover illustration" though:

Is that what the cover of something like On the Road would look like? It seems more like a pulp novel or something. Anyway, there is also a mention of a song that was written about Mina and Allan, and I believe that's the song that will be sung by Alan Moore and released on a vinyl record in the Absolute edition of the book. That should be interesting to hear; somebody upload it somewhere so I can listen to it.

Workbelt Crimepoke!: A "Tijuana Bible" that takes place in the world of George Orwell's 1984. Funny stuff, especially lines like "Oh! Our sacred, shameless act of desire defeats them! Their oppression is meaningless before our lust!" Dirty stuff, like much of the book, but a pretty good joke. Its placement in the middle of "The Crazy Wide Forever" is probably intentional, since it breaks the tedium of that section.

Director's Summary: A final report about Mina and Allan, detailing speculation about their exploits in America. My favorite bit is a line from Barney Fife. Who expected that? They also met some Golden Age superheroes, apparently.

And that's that for the contents of the Dossier. Overall, it's excellent stuff, especially since it isn't just random pastiches that Moore wanted to do, but actually conveys a lot of information about various incarnations of the League, filling in gaps in our knowledge (but leaving plenty to the imagination).

And then there's the ending (I guess there might be SPOILERS after this point, so watch out). Mina and Allan successfully escape their pursuers (in some exciting, beautifully illustrated action scenes), and make it to the Blazing World, and that's when the 3-D section starts (helpfully indicated by the characters also donning their 3-D glasses). And man, does it look beautiful. There are mind-bending vistas and tons of crazy characters and details, all presented in 3-D glory. And they even pull off some neat tricks, too, like a series of portals that show different scenes depending on which eye you have open, or the appearance of an emissary from Yuggoth (a.k.a. Lovecraft Land) who looks like a man through one eye and a tentacled monster (with freaky alien speech balloons) through the other. Beautiful stuff. Moore, always one to reuse a good idea, also works in an appearance by Mary Poppins where she's travelling through time in the opposite direction; he used the same idea in one of the issues of 1963.

(By the way, if you want to weird people out, read the 3-D section in your office lunchroom while wearing the glasses. That's what I did, and I think the business is still trying to recover from fits of laughter.)

The book ends with a speech delivered directly to the reader by Prospero. It's a fitting ending, with a Shakespeare character giving a Shakespearean monologue in a Shakespearean ending. But it's a revelatory speech that I'm still trying to process; Prospero (looking somewhat like Moore himself) talks about the role of fiction in the world, how it provides an escape and an outlet for imagination, but also how fictional ideas inspire real-world progress ("Whence came thy rocket-ships and submarines, if not from Nautilus, from Cavorite?"). It's a cyclical process, made all the richer through exploration. It's like a mission statement for the series, with the imagination (Immateria?) providing a perfect world in all our minds. "Here is our narrative made paradise, brief tales made glorious continuity." It's a rallying cry for lovers of fiction and those who believe stories can change lives and make a difference. Whatever the book's faults, whether you like it or not, it ends beautifully and movingly, with a celebration of the sheer possibility of all the great stories that are still out there, waiting to be told.


  1. You win for rocking the 3-d glasses in your office's lunch room. That is incredibly awesome.

    I've always stayed away from The League books because, quite frankly, I never felt I was smart enough to read them. That isn't me trying to be cutesy self deprecating, but just honest. I came to reading kind of late in life, and when I started reading the books that I fancied are not the ones Moore is utilizing in these books. So I know practically nothing about these characters. However, from what I understand that isn't really necessary. Do you agree?

    In the near future I plan to give these a go. Just because something might be slightly challenging doesn't mean I shouldn't give it a try. The "big adventure" quality of the first volumes should make reading the books worth my time alone.

  2. Great review!

    The idea that the Warralson team is a commentary on crappy imitation-Leagues like the one in the pretty crappy film is brilliant! I don't think you're reading too much into that section at all. I wish I'd thought of that!

  3. Kenney: I hear you on that; the books are pretty intimidating. But even if you miss all the references (which is doubtful; everybody knows something about Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, etc.), they're pretty good stories by themselves. Myself, I've never read Dracula, so I don't know that much about Mina Murray, one of the central characters, but we learn enough about her over the course of the series that it is easy to follow. The stories just get really fun when you start to realize the breadth of the material Moore is drawing from. Really, at best, the comics inspire you to check out some of the works he's referencing.

    Jason: Thanks!

  4. Great review - I wasn't quite sure what to make of this either as I was expecting the rollicking adventure and got a more meta-commentary, but the sheer breadth of Moore's vision here is pretty stunning. Some doesnt' work (totally agree on the beat pages, which I haven't gotten through at all) but overall, it's grand stuff. Agree with you about the annotations -- they're invaluable and I hope these ones are put in a book like Nevins' previous ones.

  5. Thanks, Nik! Jess Nevins said on that page that he plans to publish the annotations in book form, cleaned up and probably more complete, and with interviews with Moore and O'Neill.

  6. Nice write-up.

    I didn't really know anything about Orlando before reading this, except that he/she was a creation of Virginia Woolf...

    I haven't read the Woolf novel, but I'm fairly certain that Orlando is a pre-existing character that Woolf took up and reinvented for her own purposes. How much she changed him/her, and which version the LOEGBD uses, I couldn't say.

    I agree with some of your remarks about the Shakespeare section; I have my own (rather longer) version of these complaints here, if you're interested.

  7. ...somebody upload it somewhere so I can listen to it.

    So say we all! We really shouldn't have to buy the Absolute version just because DC couldn't get its act together to include this with the cheaper version as originally intended...

  8. Stephen: I noticed your comment on the Shakespeare section back before I read the book, but I didn't read all of it, since I was avoiding any reviews or discussions beforehand. But it looks like I kind of had a similar opinion, although you went into much more detail. I will say that I didn't find it so terrible as to consider quitting reading. It was entertaining enough, and over fairly quickly.

    As for Orlando, I didn't realize he/she was a preexisting character. Huh. I suppose I could have Wikipedia'd that bit of information...