Monday, June 8, 2009

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. I by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

(Note to people who know comic books better than me - is that how I should list the authors?)
Conceptually, I loved the idea of this book - It's like a lit geek's playground. In Alan Moore's world, the characters from the literature of the Victorian period were real, and their stories and personalities end up intertwining. The superhero team of the book is lead by Mina Murray from Dracula, and had Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, and Alan Quartermain on it. They end up fighting against Dr. Moriarty and Fu Manchu. And beside these major characters, there are little cameos by EVERYBODY. The Artful Dodger shows up, Popeye appears in one scene (I think more as a joke), Zola's Nana gets killed by Mr. Hyde, etc.

Now, I was quickly disabused of the notion that this was supposed to be some highbrow literary congratulation party. In fact, most of the characters are not from high-lit, but rather what would have been the pop-culture of Victoriana. King Solomon's Mines isn't exactly important literature, and there are also references to some famous naughty stories of the period (more or less forgotten now), etc. That's not to say none of these characters are of literary importance - Amanda would probably divorce me if I said Dr. Jekyll is trash literature. But, even the greats are the greats that were meant for mass consumption, largely. Dr. Jekyll is a sort of shilling shocker on top of it's deeper content. I mention this both because I was somewhat surprised and because I actually found the idea of that kind of fascinating. If you were writing a litty-high-brow it'd be of interest from a nerd point of view, but pop culture gives a more intimate view of what a people were like in a time (god know what that says about us, with American Idol, Twilight, and Britney Spears... ). So, honestly I was somewhat interested in this little twist.

Alan Moore definitely did his homework. The mythopeic aspect of this work is intimidating and impressive. One could spend years poring the pages for little hints, and still not get all the little references that Moore has put in here. Lord knows I had to look up some of even the major characters. On top of that, Moore has a very interesting sense of juxtaposition - it's fascinating to see the deftness with which he puts characters together. How would Alan Quartermain react to a Cthulhu beast? What happens to Mina when she's not naive and innocent anymore? And on top of that, I will say that SOMETIMES I even appreciated his sense of humor - the title pages are written after the style of various old Victorian mags (Punch, for instance, or the old Sherlock Holmes serials). I thought that was wonderful.

The problem I had with the book - and please note I haven't read any but the first volume yet - is that it feels, at times, like Moore can't decide whether he's writing in the fictional Victoria or the real Victoria. On the one hand, Captain Nemo presents a fascinating character as an exploration of colonialism in the British Empire, and the growing alienation of educated 'natives.' He was a fascinating character, because he was at once true to the idea Jules Verne laid out in 20,000 Leagues, etc, but also fleshed out into someone who could be in the real world. Sadly, particularly in the periphery characters, this was not always the case. Fu Manchu and his Asian henchmen were, for instance, terribly accurate reproductions of the big-toothed, me-so-solly stereotypical Asian villains that were in Victorian type - and that was all. So, on the one hand, he takes people and makes them real, and on the other he takes people and accentuates, highlights, rubs your face in their utter fakeness. I really BELIEVE he was doing this with a purpose, but his purpose feels muddy at times, and it's difficult to read people you want to empathize with in situations that feel embarrasing and stupid to us now. And I don't mean difficult in a good way. I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt when they had to visit a school featured in the tittilating girl-school stories of the day - after all, I understand this is part of pop-culture. But the way it was written, one got the feeling that the author just thought the whole thing was a great lark, thought it was funny to put Pollyana and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm into the scenes, etc. It was like he just couldn't resist telling the occaisional fart joke (or worse), and this detracted from the story line, like he couldn't decide whether the book was a lampoon, an adventure novel, a shilling shocker, or a work of lit. This left the story with some parts you just rolled your eyes at, and enough such parts that the good parts didn't quite make up for it. Meh.


Amanda said...

I will fully admit that Dr. Jekyll was meant to be a shilling shocker. At the same time, that didn't mean there wasn't something deeper under it.

Question: do you think *I* would like this one?

hamilcar barca said...

the movie, with Sean Connery, is great! at least that's my opinion, and two or three other people (maybe even four) agree.

Christina said...

The movie wasn't that bad, though I don't know how it followed the book. I haven't seen the X-Men movies or the Fantastic Four, either. I have no desire to, though I have seen Spider-Man first and second. I'm leery of the X-Men because I know enough of the comics to have an idea the movie doesn't really follow them, however following the comics can induce an aneurysm.

Back to the book. Was Sherlock Holmes in it? I know Dorian Gray was in the movie, but was he in the comic as well? The fight between Mina and Dorian was pretty good.

Unknown said...

Hrm... well. No. You would probably love it from your obsessive compulsive side, sort of a less farcical parallel to the Jasper Fforde books (and one that tries to say things at times). However, there is a good deal of violence, naked boobies, chinese people with huge front teeth, that sort of thing.

Amanda said...

Hey! The Jasper Fforde books also try to say something at times!

Unknown said...

Sherlock Holmes appears in a flashback. The story occurs after the faked death of Sherlock Holmes in his big battle wiht Moriarty (ie, the story where Doyle killed him, before being pressured to bring him back from the dead), so he's not in the story, though Mycroft Holmes appears. Dorian does not appear in this one, but I believe he supposedly appears in a later volume. It's worth noting, however, I may not have seen everyone in the book (in fact, I'm quite sure I didn't). For instance, in one scene there's a background image of the League of the 1700's, I think, with Lemuel Gulliver, Moll Flanders, Natty Bumpo etc., just painted into a portrait in the background.

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