Saturday, December 8, 2012

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910

(In Which your humble blogger races through the final stages of a once-beloved series)

Call me shallow and undiscerning, but when news of the first series of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released I was genuinely intrigued and excited. At the time the conceit - a superhero army of Victorian fictional heroes and antiheroes, villains and an 'honourary gentleman' in Ms Mina Murray seemed quite audacious - although I knew that if anyone could pull it off and add even more into the mix, Alan Moore was that man. And so he did. League's first series is a riot of intertextuality, and not only spawned a host of imitators (including Marvel's own reinterpretation of their cast in Seventeenth Century guise) but, an earnestly-cast but poorly written movie adaptation and the impressive scholarly career of Mr Jess Nevins, the League's unofficial official annotator.

Despite this and a campy approach to the genre itself, it seemed as though Moore was at pains to play down his heroes. Individually they were all damaged souls, and collectively they barely worked together - the most sympathetic being a monster only just kept in check, the most human being a recovering addict. If Watchmen wasn't Moore's final word on the matter of the super hero (Reader, it wasn't), his subsequent musing on the genre clearly haven't restored his faith in heroes super or otherwise. he's distressingly humanist, reliably defeatist, and as you read further into the series the grumpy old bugger's voice becomes clearer still. League's second serial faced this head-on by eschewing a central villain for the threat of internal collapse - and sure enough, 'Mina's League' as it was later known, was finished by the end of the book. years passed, and Mina and her lover Allan returned League-less, but exploring more of Moore's invented Land of Fiction, the 'Blazing World' in the dense multimedia Black Dossier. Ostensibly a chase through the Fifties, this collection is a marked departure, and is the series at its most frustratingly episodic: once more there's no Moriarty figure, just a sadistic analogue of today's cinematic hero of the hour, and two intriguing additions: a priapic and baritone Golliwog with a language all of his own (whom I came to adore, despite my initial reservations), and Moore's newest import and clear current favourite, Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Time, I feel, has been kind to Black Dossier, but I also fear that never have Nevins' annotations been more voraciously consulted.

Which brings us to the star attraction, now complete and mercifully available at my local library. Weaving its way between the aftermath of League's second series and Dossier, before leading to two post-Dossier volumes, Century  presents in this strip at least a final attempt at a cohesive League with the brief addition of occult detective Carnacki and 'gentleman thief' A J Raffles, plus something of a shadowy nemesis in Oliver Haddo, Moore's appropriated analogue to Aleister Crowley. I have to admit I quite liked the twitchy, somewhat hapless coupling of Carnacki and Raffles, as ineffectual as they are they're really no worse than the old League, in fact they're more than mostly harmless if way out of their depth. The trouble with the new League of course, once more, is their creator's determination to render them impotent. Orlando, who received much adoring attention in the Dossier is revealed to be even more of his/her direct existential self, constantly switching between two self-confessed specialist states - female/male, "f*cking and fighting." S/he is, however, all talk and very little trousers. Which would have worked, had Century's first volume, 1910, stuck to that story. Instead, Moore, swept up in the lyrics of The Threepenny Opera, draws his League into a neat but nasty collision with Brecht's musical melodrama, giving us a new captain to Nemo's Nautilus, and another failure of the League, leading inevitably to a rematch...

To sum up: The first of three volumes is a scene-setter, and less of a re-arranger. There are few seeds sown for the later story here, really, although the fate of Nemo's progeny is a neat inclusion, and the story's setting is novel in itself, not to my mind greatly explored either in SF or speculative fiction.

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