Thursday, October 2, 2008

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 2

“Pretending everything’s tickety-boo, Nemo. It’s the great British pastime.” --Allan Quatermain

For some reason, I always think this Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill series was written around the time of Moore’s other triumph (well, one of them) V for Vendetta, which was from the ‘80s. Actually, LoEG is quite contemporaneous, though strangely it’s published by America’s Best Comics and printed in Canada! Whatever. As you know, I enjoyed the first volume—obviously the wit, violence, cynicism, sex and grime are in common with From Hell, the first graphic novel I ever read. I’m surprised that by the end of this, it purports to be the final volume of the comic. My big criticism of From Hell was its obsession with making Jack the Ripper into a cosmic phenomenon, which frankly I didn’t think the events warranted (the Ripperologist in me also blames Moore for propagating the Royal plot on me when I didn’t know any better). I see Moore’s ambitions (he cut his teeth on Doctor Who, after all) but it’s just not for me.

That doesn’t make his opening, with Kevin O’Neill’s extraordinary art, any less magnificent. There’s a superb two page spread of hyper-alien costume and beings, an army that’s half-The Fifth Element, half-Lawrence of Arabia. It brings to mind Return of the King, as well, and Star Wars. No matter if it has much in common with other sci fi forbears: it’s really cool, and the entire opening will throw the reader (who is expecting the 1890s on Earth) for a loop. Frank Miller, eat your heart out. I’m totally confused as to why the action has started on Mars, other than to give us cool drawings and a sense of, again, the cosmic size of the conflict, but soon enough we’ve joined the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (surely they must have worked in tandem with Torchwood; they’re around for the same purpose and founded in roughly the same period!). I find it very amusing that the most interesting, most heroic character in the League is not a man, and most of them are not gentlemen in any sense! Clearly Moore’s sense of cynicism.

Allan Quatermain, African explorer of King Solomon’s Mines and nearly 70, Miss Mina Murray (sloughing off her married name of Harker and left with the scars of her conflict with Dracula, to her infinite shame), Dr. Henry Jekyll (who spends most of the story as Hyde), Captain Nemo of the Nautilus, and Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man. All fictional characters from British pens of the late 19th century. The premise’s appeals to me are obvious. I’m not quite sure what the inspiration between the “Milking Stools” or Tripods, as the mollusc-like, Alien-like super aliens is, but they’re terrifying. There is a delightful sense that this could have happened in Doctor Who—can’t you just see the Fourth Doctor uttering Mina’s line here? BOND: “It’s all incredible, I can hardly take it in. I-If that thing’s truly from another world, then . . .” MINA: “Sir, it hardly appeared Prussian.” Moore’s command of the Victorian vernacular—Mina calls someone a “vile jelly if I ever saw one”—is natural and probably accurate, never too stuffed-shirt or too slang-y. Likewise, the thing I once got praised for as my “talent” in drawing comics—sincerity of expression, a genuine capture of body language and feeling—is exactly what O’Neill possesses in abundance. That makes things as mundane as Mina throwing her reticule on the bed in the inn look interesting.

Mina is clearly the brains of the operation as well as the most sympathetic character. As I mentioned before, she reminds me of the Doctor. “I have a terrible feeling. Those men . . . most of them are going to die, aren’t they?” Obviously I’m going to find her relationship with Hyde poignant. In the previous story, Mina and Allan had a couple of romantic liaisons but they aren’t a couple per se. In a quiet moment, the monstrously-proportioned Hyde is allowed to show a bit of the Elephant Man. I’m aware as I’m reading it I’ve written an Erik (Phantom of the Opera) in Scars who sounds a lot like this. HYDE: “Miss Murray, though I am a beast, do not think that I am stupid. I know that I am hideous and hateful. I am not loved, nor ever hope to be. Nor am I fool enough to think that what I feel for you is love. But in this world, alone, I do not hate you ... and alone in this world, you do not hate me. . . . Go quickly, before I break your jaw.” Their relationship is based on the fact that Mina has known someone worse—Dracula. I won’t pretend this didn’t sound like a bit of Robin McKinley as well.

I love that the League’s headquarters are the British Museum, and that it’s full of all manner of cryptozoology and general weirdness. It’s where Griffin assaults Mina, unfortunately, as the guy has been a jerk the entire book series and finally shows his true colors by betraying the human race to the enemy. Clearly, if you’ve been paying attention, you know Griffin’s going to get payback and then some from Hyde. (NEMO: “Besides, if I were Miss Murray, I should not like to miss that event [Griffin’s capture].” HYDE: “No, I don’t believe she would. She is different to us, Nemo.”) In light of the events, Hyde and Nemo go aboard the Nautilus to try to keep the Tripods back, while Mina and Allan are sent on a mission for a secret weapon. Hyde and Nemo can barely stand each other but appreciate each other’s assets in the fight for England, which makes their boat trip rather amusing.

No less than getting Harley and Ivy to take showers and Selina Kyle nearly nude all the time, Moore and O’Neill waste no time in getting Mina to remove her corsetry and seduce Allan who I daresay needs little provocation. (She is, after all, a married woman. And their romance is rather sweet. ALLAN: “I’ve tried not to imagine you. It felt wrong.” MINA: “Allan, you are dead, while I am divorced, disgraced, and disregarded by the rest of the world. Could anything make us moe wrong, do you suppose?”) Because of Alan Moore, though, I don’t mind telling you, I thought every graphic novel was required to have nasty sex interludes. There are two in this volume. I don’t mean to be a prude, but are they really necessary? Moore tries to make a joke about it by putting a moral prohibition about “unhappy fornicators” after Allan has seen Mina’s vampiric wounds about which she is so self-conscious, but it doesn’t quite reach its mark. Besides, I can’t imagine any way worse to end your exciting sylvan sex than one of Doctor Moreau’s creatures coming up on you in the woods!

As dastardly as is Hyde’s revenge, he does explain some things that would have put ardent Stevensonians out of joint. For example, he explains that originally he was the troglodyte of the book, as Jekyll’s “sins” were small, including a bit of shoplifting and the like, but has grown to his immense proportions because Hyde’s growth has been unrestricted by Jekyll’s influence. Hyde goes out in blazing glory that is ever-so-Elephant-Man. That’s two of the League gone, Nemo jumps ship out of principle when Dr. Moreau’s secret weapon is revealed. So while we triumph against the aliens, the League is splintered. Mina decides that sex with Allan wasn’t that great or something—she tells him she needs time, whatever. The only weak bit of writing associated with her.

Anyway, that’s the end of volume two, but a fascinating document on the history of the League is included. It’s too vast and amazingly thorough to summarize, but I will drop the names from which figures of literature appear—it’s almost like a Where’s Waldo of literature. Lemuel Gulliver, the Blakeneys, Fanny Hill, Woolff’s Orlando, and Shakespeare’s Prospero are all pioneering members of the League. In their travels they meet characters from Cold Comfort Farm, Bleak House, Under Milk Wood, Alice in Wonderland, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Fantomas, Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Castle of Otranto, In the Name of the Rose, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Utopia, Gormenghast, Canterbury Tales, a wonderful pirate commune with the likes of Captains Blood, Hook, and Clegg (alas not Sparrow), HMS Pinafore, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, the Macondo of García Márquez, Candide, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Paul Bunyan, Twin Peaks, Gene Autry (?!), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Stephen King’s novels, Arkham Asylum (?!), Tarzan, Last of the Mohicans, Madam Butterfly, The Mikado, Santa Claus and polar bears who are being propositioned by Coca Cola (?!), Heart of Darkness, Toyland, and no doubt many, many that I’m not cultured enough to recognize. In addition (!) there’s a board game that is probably worth the price of the book alone, which sees you pitting your wits against Spring Heeled Jack, Edwin Drood, Sweeney Todd, Nikola Tesla, Mowgli, the Black Cat (from Poe), Pip from Great Expectations, the man in the iron mask, Moby Dick, The Moonstone, Camilla [sic; they mean Carmilla], Varney the Vampire (I’m damned impressed at that reference), a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, John Melmoth (also very impressed with that one), Auguste Dupin, Harry Flashman, etc. It’s good fun, with cover art from all six issues and a few other assorted fun and games.

Yes, it’s as Victorian a graphic novel as they come.

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