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.


  1. I was actually pretty satisfied when I finished reading this installment. Black Dossier had left me a little lukewarm actually, I thought the metatextual play was getting a bit overgrown and sort of dragging the story, so I appreciated the more streamlined narrative here. I have to say that I'm a little less pleased now that I know there's probably a year between each part. But you're right, its a bit unfinished, and a year may be a bit too long for me to maintain excitement.

    And this is criticism that might be too early to lay on Alan Moore, especially considering all the thought and consideration he obviously puts in these things, but I thought Janni got really short shrift in her plot. I buy that she's probably been sheltered and somewhat naive, but hanging out in the slums and the like--I feel like not only would Nemo have better educated her about the world, but if she's to be seen as a capable heir, or even a competent one, she should have taken better care of herself. Obviously, all the LotG books all have a sort of jaundiced version of things, but it's also a reconstruction of stories of a sort, between characters that are supposed to subvert expection with Mina and very, very troublesome Golliwog in Black Dossier. Janni's plot feels like a check box of weak plotting right now.

  2. Hey Matt,

    Once again, you're proving you're the best on the web. That being said, I'm going to disagree with you and hope it doesn't turn into the mess I made of things on Tucker's blog.

    I *really* enjoyed this chapter. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably still be the 2nd volume, but this is up there for me. It could be due to my love of the old Carnacki stories - seeing him pop up here was a nice surprise.

    Going into this book, I read some Raffles stories and watched the Threepenny Opera for the first, and second, and third, times, so I felt like I was in good shape. I *really* enjoyed the use of pretty much all the Threepenny elements. Suki Tawdry caught me by surprise, but beside her, I was able to identify everything and I felt the songs *really* worked.

    Orlando - I cannot stand Orlando in the League. Orlando is exactly the sort of person I try to avoid in my day to day, so I think it's the good kind of hate, the kind brought on through good writing and development of the character.

    The only fault I have is how Moore is still completely avoiding the issue of race. I read an excellent essay linked through Nevin's annotations about how Moore has changed everything so race is never an issue. Like, in the original books, Quartermain is extremely racist (by today's standards), but in the League books, he's all laid back and doesn't ever seem to give thought to it. In the Victorian era, non-white people weren't catching a break from *anyone* and it always feels like Moore is just trying to brush over that so he can impose his 21st century sexual views on these old characters. (Which is another problem I have - why do all the women have a porn star view of sex? Every one of them, with the exception of Janni so far, seems to be ready, willing, and able to jump in the sack with anyone at anytime.)

    Basically, my complaints are the same since the New Traveler's Almanac, Moore has given these very 19th century characters *very* 21st century opinions and has used that to conveniently avoid whatever he wants while turning the book into an exploration of any fantasy he likes.

    That being said, it's still some of the best stuff I've *ever* read.

  3. Interesting points, guys. I hadn't really considered Janni's lack of development, but that's a very fair criticism. And Kenny makes some really good comments too, especially about the sexual permissiveness and whitewashing of racism.

    I would guess that familiarity with the Threepenny Opera would probably add to enjoyment here, and might be what made me feel unsatisfied. From what I read of the annotations, the songs are really well integrated, especially "Pirate Jenny". That's pretty cool, but I didn't feel like I was missing too much with previous volumes, maybe because stuff like War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau are more well-known, so I know the gist of those stories even if I haven't read them.

    And I shouldn't make it sound like I didn't like the book; it's really good, and my criticisms or whatever will probably be moot when the next parts come out, although I suspect we'll all be sick of the year-long wait.

    Thanks for the comments!

  4. The issues with Janni's story are, I'd say, a result of it largely being a rewrite of "Pirate Jenny" in more literal terms. The original should probably be taken primarily as a servingwoman's grand revenge fantasy, which doesn't even try to explain what this pirate queen should be doing as a servingwoman, or make the revenge seem remotely proportional to the offense, both of which Moore does.

    I do think it works well coming to it with a familiarity with the song, but perhaps not so well without.

  5. James is right that Janni's plot is Pirate Jenny--it's just that Moore usually plans everything in meticulous detail, but they don't come off quite so literal minded.

    I did really enjoy it, even if the issues Kenny mentions have been popping up more often in his work. Maybe I should be reading the annotations since it seems to articulate these ideas better. I first noticed Moore's sex pov popping up distractingly in the Smax mini-series--meaning it came off to me as mannered as opposed to integrated, since it not as if sexual relations wasn't a topic in Top Ten before.

  6. Hey guys, here's the article linked from Nevis's annotations about the race stuff:


    She has quite a bit to say about it, too:


    It's something that's bothered me a lot, because in King Solomon's Mines (the only Quartermain book I've read), Quartermain is definitely *very* racist. I can't imagine him having an epiphany, either, because in Victorian era society, that was common. We can look back on it now and judge it as wrong, but back then, it wasn't looked on that way. So, I'm not sure how Moore's characters can suddenly be so enlightened with this very 20th century attitude. It really has been bugging me a lot.

    As for the sexual stuff, it's every bit as jarring. hcduvall - the opinions about the sexual attitudes I've mentioned are largely my own. Nevins touches on it here and there, but he doesn't usually interject his own opinions in his annotations too much. But yeah, it's just like - I don't understand why seemingly every woman is always looking to get laid by anyone and everyone.

    That article I linked to goes into how disturbing the Golliwog is with the wooden dolls - largely how Moore ignores the racist connotations of the Golliwog yet embraces the idea these two skinny white women love him for having a big penis. It really is quite disturbing.

    Anyway, I had the same thoughts you two had on Janni - it's a very literal telling of the song. Plus, for me, I'm engaged to an Indian woman, so the idea of an Indian woman kicking butt and taking names appeals to me. So, while her story probably was weak, I was more like "Yay! A positive portrayal of a brown person!" That is one thing Moore has done incredibly well in this series - his Indian characters. Nemo was very regal, noble, and virtuous - you could understand why he hated the British and why he was looked upon as a villain by them. I just wish he would have directly tackled the racism stuff as opposed to skipping it.

    And just my opinion, but I think Moore is sort of working out his fantasies of having an open marriage with a bisexual woman. I know he had a situation like that before it fell apart and it always reads to me like "This is how it should have been!"

  7. Thanks again for the comments, Kenny. I've read the article about racism from back when Black Dossier came out, and it's interesting. I don't feel like it affects me, and it's not as noticeable for me, since I'm very, very white, but it's fascinating to hear other viewpoints and see how this stuff affects people. I find it especially troubling that Moore kind of whitewashes the existing historical racism while still adding the more modern, subtle racism that you point out.

    And yeah, you're quite right about the sexual stuff as well. It's been showing up in a bunch of Moore's recent stuff, to the point that most everyone notices and comments on it. I think it's definitely a sort of fantasy fulfillment for him, as in "isn't it hot when all these people are so sex-positive?" And who knows, maybe he is living this fantasy. You said his situation fell apart, but he's still married to Melinda Gebbie, isn't he?