The heroes (and heroine) of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (America’s Best Comics) should be familiar to any school kid who’s looked to old blood-and-thunder storytelling as a means of meeting Classic Lit reading requirements: Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley (Invisible Man) Griffin, Henry Jeckyll/Edward Hyde and resolute Mina Murray (married name, Harker). It’s the entertaining conceit of comic book scripter Alan Moore that this disparate group of fictional characters is brought together by the British govt. at the turn of the 19th century. Their mission: to battle nefarious forces like the unnamed Oriental doctor skulking in the vicinity of Limehouse. Their leader is only known by the letter “M,” which Mina readily assumes is shorthand for Myrcroft Holmes, Sherlock’s super-genius brother. Of course, she’s mistaken.
League is one big gift for the kid within who still recalls reading Conan Doyle & Sax Rohmer paperbacks in the 1960′s, a witty and playful evocation of what used to be called Boy’s Adventure Books – only filtered through the cheerfully limb-rending sensibilities of modern British comic art. (Artist Kevin O’Neill, working full tilt at recreating the Victorian milieu, is also known for rendering the garishly ultra-violent superhero series, Marshal Law.) First volume in the series – issued in trade paperback just in time for the second set of comics to start appearing – collects the initial six issues: a ripping comics yarn, plus a prose piece that looks like it could’ve come out of The Strand, followed by a bunch of risible features like a color-by-numbers version of the picture of Dorian Gray.
Like most of Moore’s comic work, League is densely packed: the man’s a master at embellishing what in lesser hands would be straightforward pulp. (Not surprisingly, there’s a site devoted to annotating Moore’s comic work – with a section on this series’ Victoriana.) But he’s also adept at writing entertaining characters, too. Mina Murray (strong-willed yet still clinging to some vestige of Victorian tradition) and Allan Quatermain (a druggie when we first meet him, though he soon reverts into the stalwart adventurer I recall from those H. Rider Haggard books) quickly move to the forefront, though there also are some enjoyable sequences featuring their less stable cohorts.
The first half of volume one is devoted to our heroine recruiting other team members: traveling in the Nautilus to Cairo than Paris (where we get to return w./ Auguste Dupin to the Rue Morgue) than a comically depraved British girls school where the Invisible Man is running rampant. Second half revolves around the pursuit for an anti-gravity element that could’ve also appeared in one of s-f writer Michael Moorcock’s pastiches (Warlord of the Air, say). A great air battle over London ensues, which is certainly in keeping with the conventions of British speculative fiction, circa 1898.
I had a great time with this stirring volume. Moore is unique among current comics writers in his ability to communicate the enthusiasm of his elaborate story construction. He’s like the crazed inventor of some Terry Gilliam contraption. Even when it doesn’t do much of anything, you wanna watch it working just to see how all the parts move. . .