League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume II

By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill & various (Americas Best Comics/WildStorm/DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0118-0 (TPB)

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, particularly the genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill but possessing unbounded imaginations expounded personal concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the innate belief in English Superiority. 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 should be played.

For all the problems this raises with our modern sensibilities, many of the stories remain uncontested classics of literature and form the roadmap for 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.

An august selection of just such heroic prototypes were seconded – and slyly re-examined under modern scrutiny – by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill for a miniseries in 1999 that managed to say as much about our world as that long gone one, and incidentally tell a captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

In short succession there was an inevitable sequel, once more pressing into service vampire-tainted Wilhelmina Murray, aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain, Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, the charismatic genius Captain Nemo and both cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll and his bombastic alter-ego Mister Hyde. The tale also added cameos from the almost English Edwin Lester Arnolds’ Gullivar Jones, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and even many creatures from C.S. Lewis’ allegorical sequence Out of the Silent Planet.

The idea of combining shared cultural brands is evergreen: Philip Jose Farmer in particular spun many a yarn teaming such worthies as Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Tarzan and their like; Warren Ellis succumbed to similar temptation in Planetary and Jasper Fforde worked literary miracles with the device in his Thursday Next novels, but the sheer impetus of Moore & O’Neill’s para-steampunk revisionism, rush of ideas (and the stunning, startling visuals that carry them) make this book (and all the previous ones) form an irresistible experience and absolute necessity for every fiction fan, let alone comic collector…

In ‘Phases of Deimos’, as London rebuilds after the cataclysmic denouement of the previous volume, a savage planetary conflict on the fourth planet ends with the firing of gigantic projectiles at our fragile, unsuspecting world …

The barrage hits home in ‘People of Other Lands’ and the cohort of reluctant agents is on hand when hideous otherworldly invaders begin incinerating the best that Britain can offer. One of the operatives considers treachery as more cylinders arrive in ‘And Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder’ and acts upon the temptation as the incursion renders Earth’s most advanced defenders helpless…

With the Empire being dismantled by Tripods and other supra-scientific engines of destruction, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ finds half of the chastened and dispirited agents seeking other allies and ideas, even as ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’ sees the traitor exposed and dealt with despite the inexorable advance of the Martian horde before the tide unexpectedly and shockingly turns in ‘You Should See Me Dance the Polka…’

This startlingly impressive and beguilingly effective interleaving of HG Wells’ landmark fantasy classic with the skewed but so-very plausible conceit that all the great adventurers of literature hung out together captures perfectly the feeling of a world and era ending. As one would expect, internal conflicts pull apart the champions – at no time do they ever even slightly resemble a team – and Moore’s irrepressible imagination and vast cultural reservoir dredges up a further elite selection of literary touchstones to enhance the proceedings.

Dark and genuinely terrifying, the tale unfolds largely unchanged from the original War of the Worlds plot, but a string of parallel side-stories are utterly gripping and unpredictable, whilst the inclusion of such famed and/or lost characters as Bill Samson, Doctor Moreau, Tiger Tim and even Rupert Bear (among others) sweetens the pot for those in the know.

Those who aren’t you can always consult A Blazing World: the official companion to the drama…

This book is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a stunning piece of comics wizardry of a sort no other art form can touch, and as with the other Moore & O’Neill collaborations there are wry visual supplements (including, activity pages, puzzles and mazes, faux ads and a board game) plus a substantial text feature – The New Traveller’s Almanac – at the back, in-filling the alternative literary history of the League.

It is quite wordy, but Read It Anyway: it’s there for a reason and is more than worth the effort as it outlines the antecedents of the assorted champions in a fabulously stylish and absorbing manner. It might also induce you to read a few other very interesting and rewarding books…
© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.