If – and this is quite likely – your only exposure to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the utterly despicable League film (otherwise known as LXG – the League of Extreme Gentlemen) then you may be wondering what all the fuss is surrounding the release of The Black Dossier, the latest volume in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s increasing canon of League graphic novels.
Well, it’s difficult to articulate fully why this is such a big deal, but let me put it this way – if Shakespeare were alive today and he released another play, wouldn’t you be interested? If Elvis were still going and had a new album out, wouldn’t you understand the hype? The comics industry, without hyperbole, is living this situation whenever Moore releases a new comic, and that, simply put, is why it’s such a big deal for comic fans. He’s our Shakespeare.
By this point in League continuity, most of the characters that appeared in the first two volumes have been jettisoned entirely, as the story jumps forward over half a century following the League-assisted defeat of Wells’ Martian invasion detailed in League, Volume 2.
It’s 1958, and Britain is just coming out from under the rule of a post-World War 2 IngSoc government. Allan Quatermain Jr. and a woman who may be the daughter of former League-operative Mina Harker break into an MI5 facility and steal the Black Dossier, a brief of material describing the history of the League from it’s earliest inception, right up until the present day. Hot on their heels trying to retrieve the Dossier is the most current version, a fairly pedestrian group which includes Jimmy, the secret-agent grandson of one Campion Bond, and a young Miss Knight, the Avenging daughter of an industrialist.
If you think I’m being ambiguous about some of those characters, that’s because, by necessity, the book is. While literary favourites such as Mr. Hyde and Captain Nemo are long out-of-copyright and thus fair game for Moore to include, characters from the 50s are a much muddier prospect. It’s this close-to-the-knuckle approach to copyright which led the book to be removed (by its publishers, DC Comics) from distribution outside of the US – although several other theories, abound, mostly related to Moore and O’Neill’s decision to move the property to Top Shelf for future publication.
The story unfolds in a variety of techniques – this is no mere “graphic novel” but something more akin to a comics-based multimedia experience. The contents of the Black Dossier are shown to the reader in fully-realised form, so when Mina and Allan are reading a section of Shakespeare’s lost play, Fairy’s Fortunes Founded, so are you, presented on thin, yellowed paper. When the story calls for the characters to read a beat generation novel related to their travels, you get 5 prose pages of the “Sal Paradise” novel, Crazy Wide Forever. The high-priced “Absolute” edition, due next year, should also include a vinyl LP. It’s essential to praise O’Neill as well as Moore for his role in creating these sections of the Black Dossier. The range of styles on display is a testament to his talent.
Then there’s the infamous 3D section, partly responsible for the delays which plagued the release of the title. The book comes with a set of glasses to use, and the climax, set in the 4-Dimensional “Blazing World” is rendered expertly in 3D by Ray Zone. The rationale for this displays Moore’s genius – if comics depict a 3D world in two dimensions, then he reasoned that a 4D world should be depicted in three dimensions. It’s hard to argue with that logic, especially when you’ve seen the results, and it’s this intense understanding of the medium that puts Moore in his own – ahem – league.
Still, with all of this experimentation and paradigm-shifting going on, does the story get lost along the way? Well, not as such. It’s true that this volume of the League is about 50% story, 50% sourcebook, but the plot is as layered as any other Moore book, if not more so. If anything’s going to cause readers trouble, it’s the sheer density of literary references which has been cranked up higher than ever before. Jess Nevins’ annotations, available free online and soon to be published under the title “Impossible Territories”, are a must-have for any reader who doesn’t have a degree in pre-war literature, though there is a certain perverse pleasure in trying to spot the ones you know on the first read-through.
Ultimately, the Black Dossier lives up to the reputation of previous League stories, and justifies the long, long wait since the previous one. It’s an utter must-buy (if you can actually get hold of it…) but then, it’s an Alan Moore book, so you knew that already, right?
James also reviews a new comic every weekday on his blog, Comics Daily.