The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume I

By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (America’s Best Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-858-7

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, especially in the sub-genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill but with unbounded imaginations explored the concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the underlying belief of English Supremacy in matters of culture and technology. In all worlds and even beyond them the British gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, viewing danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game was played.

For all the faults our modern sensibilities can detect in those stirring sagas, many of them remain unshakable classics of adventure and the roadmap of all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of Racism, Sexism (even misogyny), Class Bias and Cultural Imperialism, the best of them remain the greatest of all yarns.

As heroic prototypes a gaggle of these Imperialist icons were deputized by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill for a six-issue miniseries in 1999 that managed to say as much about our world as that far ago one, and incidentally tell a captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

Wilhemina Murray survived a clash with a supernatural monster but was forever altered. Recruited by the British Secret Service chief Campion Bond, she was charged with organising a team of superior operatives to defeat an insidious foreign menace growing within the very heart of the British Empire. To this end she travelled the globe and convinced the greatest hero and most iniquitous outlaws of the time to band together.

The aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain is unlikely company for the Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, Captain Nemo and Mister Hyde, although the diffident and cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll could be considered a suitable companion for a widow under almost any circumstance…

Together they foil a most dastardly plot only to discover that all is not as it seems…

This collected book probably best illustrates my discomfort with big budget movie adaptations, over and above the institutionalized and explicit slight that always comes with the blurb “now a major motion picture!”

The story grew beyond the authors’ avowed expectations of “a kind of Victorian Justice League” to become a steampunk classic, with fin de siècle technology, trappings, expectations and attitudes, becoming a powerful allegory for our own millennial events, and the act of its creation becoming a game for creator and reader alike as every character in the tale was culled from existing works of literature and the audience all-but challenged to identify them!

The wit, artifice and whimsy of the compelling mystery – for that, gentle reader is what it is – as well as the vast, complex array of sub-texts and themed extras such as faux advertising broadsheets woven into the text, must perforce be lost when building an entertainment for the widest possible audience: especially one that must conclude in under 120 minutes. The film might reach more sets of eyes but unless they then read the book have they actually been reached at all?

I admit I intensely disliked the film: The plot changes seem arbitrary, I could see no reason other than crass commerciality to include an American in the roster, completely counter to the covert nature of the mission – after all the USA was a rival foreign power. And if one why not all? Let’s see Davy Crockett, Huck Finn, Paul Bunyan, Ambrose Bierce and Lizzie Borden take on the Yellow Peril. Moreover I couldn’t stop laughing after the giant submarine with a draught of a couple of hundred feet surfaced from the canals of Venice – average depth 5 metres (on a good day).

I don’t hate films – I’d love them to make one from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; they just haven’t done it yet.

This book is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a brilliant piece of comics wizardry of the sort that no other art form can touch.

If you haven’t seen the film – and even more so if you have – I urge you to read this book. And then you can start in on Dickens, Rider Haggard, Stevenson, Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Rohmer and all the glorious rest…

© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill.  All Rights Reserved.