GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "L" page 1
 

soft cover by Kevin O'NeillThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol. 1 2002 (HC & SC TPB)

Written by Alan Moore. Illustrated by Kevin O'Neill.
Colours: Benedict Dimagmaliw. Letters: William Oakley. Editor: Scott Dunbier.

Reprinting: The complete, 6 issue first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mini-series (1999-2000) - plus covers.

Recommended for Mature Readers.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by America's Best Comics (a division of DC Comics)

Set in a kind of alternate reality 1898, this unites a band of pre-existing 19th Century characters, including Captain Nemo (created by Jules Verne) and Allan Quatermain (created by H. Rider Haggard). I'm hesitant to identify other, more supernatural recruits, as the first couple of chapters involves the lady leader of the League -- the caustic suffragette, Wilhelmina Murray -- tracking them down. Although most people picking up this collection presumably know what characters appear, if you don't, there's an added mystery to those early scenes.

Recruited as British agents, they are sent to retrieve a scientific device stolen by an evil Oriental mastermind in London's East End -- a character modelled after Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu (though not identified as such, perhaps because he's from a slightly later period, and not necessarily in the public domain).

Written by the legendary Alan Moore, and drawn in a cartoony, but intricate style by Kevin O'Neill, this is a moderately entertaining romp. But one can't shake the feeling of it being a bit of a let down. A grand idea given a rather less than grand treatment.

Moore approaches the thing with his tongue somewhat in cheek. That doesn't mean it's out-and-out silly (save a bawdy sequence at a Girl's School) it just means he doesn't take it particularly seriously. As well, like in his critically regarded The Watchmen, Moore brings a cynical, revisionist eye to his material. Throughout, Moore drops cheeky references to Victorian literature -- everything from literary works, to German SF, to S&M erotica. Almost every name that's used is a reference to a pre-existing character. I picked up on many references, but some skimmed over my head (fans have set up on-line annotations, as they did for The Watchmen, for those wanting to fill in the gaps). That can be fun, particularly scenes in a secret annexe of the British Museum with exhibits from Gulliver's Travels and other stories.

All that's very clever...but that doesn't necessarily make it smart. One can admire the wealth of literary trivia at Moore's command, but beyond raising an occasional smirk on the part of the reader, it doesn't take you anywhere. If you don't get the references, the story and characters have to be able to stand on their own.

Those expecting the complex plotting of The Watchmen will be disappointed. This saga is fairly straight forward. There's a twist or two, but of a conventional variety. Even the decision to use familiar villains is problematic. Sure, the point is to use familiar icons, but it can get a bit stale after a while.

There's a certain, well, mundanity to the proceedings. The back cover warns of a threat of world domination, but the actual villainy seems more parochial (though moderately spectacular in its own right). Moore fails to construct a story that exploits his literary icons to their fullest. The mariner Nemo...but the story largely takes place on dry land; Quatermain, the jungle adventurer...but the story transpires principally in London. The plot unfolds at a leisurely, somewhat talky pace at times, presumably to evoke more sedate Victorian storytelling (though there are plenty of very modern action and adventure scenes) without too many of those scenes being that cleverly handled or unexpected.

At the same time, they aren't badly handled either.

But the more intriguing ideas are never followed through on. There's a chilling scene (and here I'm being oblique) where one character pretends he can't see someone that the reader knows he can. But nothing comes of it. Likewise, although it's pretty obvious who Wilhelmina is by the end, it is never explicitly stated. Despite this being a mini-series, presumably Moore had already planned its sequels. Once again, we have a comicbook work that fails to be a graphic novel and is, instead, just an initial episode (albeit a self-contained one).

There's also a coldness to the story (as there often is with Moore). A sense it's an intellectual game more than a human drama. The selected characters are intriguing, and their interplay can be fun, but you don't especially like these people (heck, some of them are abhorent psychopaths). Little attempt is made to evoke our sympathy, or to establish genuine camaraderie between the characters. And what characterization there is can be inconsistent, particularly Nemo. In fact, given that the point is to use familiar icons, Moore doesn't always stick to the original characterizations.

The art by Kevin O'Neill is cartoony, but also expressive and delightfully detailed. He has an imaginative take on the Nautilus, and crams backgrounds with lots of little figures and details. Though Ben Dimagmaliw's colouring of backgrounds in shades of the same colour hurts the art, blunting the detail. The world which these characters inhabit is clearly not our 1898, populated as it is with weird architecture and airships. On one hand, that adds to the escapist whimsy of the piece. On the other hand, surely the point should be to evoke the time period? As well, some of O'Neill's imagination clashes with later aspects of the plot.

Moore tries to juggle evoking a past literary era, and also satirizing, even criticizing same.

On one hand, he throws in aspects that could be inferred as racist, presumably to reflect the time. He also throws in some questionable sexual stuff -- Wilhelmina weathering two attempted assaults in the first chapter alone! Presumably it's a cheeky concession to the luridness of the genre...except such scenes are more a reflection of the later, pulp magazine period (I don't recall Haggard, Verne, et al writing such scenes).

Yet, Moore also seems to be deriding his artistic inspirers (much as Watchmen was a superhero saga criticizing super heroes). By introducing Quatermain as an opium junkie (something I don't associate with the character), he seems to be attacking the very heroes of yesteryear (though Quatermain is still one of the more agreeable characters in the story). The collection opens with a quote, attributed to one of the characters: "The British Empire has always encountered difficulty distinguishing its heroes from its monsters." Taken one way, this could be Moore's criticism of the way all nation's sanitize their history, and perhaps he uses these fictional characters to illustrate that, as the "noble" Empire will use any means to protect itself, even "monsters". However, some of these characters were originally written as villains...it is Moore, no one else, who has chosen to re-cast them as heroes (or, at least, as anti-heroes). Some of the League engage in horrendous acts, engendering some half-hearted criticism from their peers, but half-hearted is all it is. In the end, it is Moore who seems to be embracing his monsters.

The story is also very much aimed at mature readers in spots. In the early chapters there's some lurid, racy material, then that is dropped entirely to be replaced by scenes of graphic gore. Moore and O'Neill clearly revel in their bloodshed. Even the background details O'Neil provides in his crowd scenes are inherently hostile (lots of cartoony figures hitting and yelling at each other). There's an overall unsavouriness to the proceedings.

Also included is a text story, written by Moore, called "Allan and the Sundered Veil" (originally serialized in the mini-series). Featuring Allan Quatermain, it follows a similar pattern of having him meet up with existing literary heroes, this time evoking the eeriness of H.P. Lovecraft. Evoke and satirize. The story is written in an over-the-top, purple manner. Though intended partly as parody, it's actually kind of moody in spots, and is as interesting as the main, comicbook story, though it peters out (and is presumably meant largely to foreshadow later adventures).

Though tongue-in-cheek runs throughout, out-and-out funny bits are mainly the mock bios of Moore and O'Neill on the back cover, or some fake ads (apparently the original comics contained more, but only a few were included in this collection).

Part of the hype around this is that the League may be on its way to your local movie theatre (so the rumour goes). But with all due respect to Moore and O'Neill, as it is, it's not that strong. I'm guessing the movie will undergo some radical alterations, either by making it funnier (spot-the-literary-refs only goes so far) or by fleshing it out with a better plot and characterization. We'll see.

Additional note: Yes a movie was made, and yes it made some significant changes to the story (while retaining other aspects); the movie was a critical disaster yet, ironically, though I thought it was seriously flawed, in some respects it was more enjoyable than the comic. At least, in the second half, because at least you were meant to care about the characters.

You finish this TPB much as you began it: thinking it sounds like a very clever idea. Off-beat enough to while away a few hours, but light weight and somewhat nihilistc. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Maybe the League of Moderately Diverting Gentlemen instead.

The sequel is reviewed below.

Soft cover price: $24.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA.


soft cover by Kevin O'NeillThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol. 2 2003 (HC & SC TPB) 228 pages

Written by Alan Moore. Illustrated by Kevin O'Neill.
Colours: Ben Dimagmaliw. Letters: William Oakley.

Reprinting: The complete, 6 issue League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, volume 2 mini-series (1999-2000) - plus covers.

Recommended for Mature Readers.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by America's Best Comics (a division of DC Comics)

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mini-series (reviewed above) was greeted, as are most things by Alan Moore, with almost universal acclaim. And who could resist the cheeky concept of concocting a tale wherein various Victorian-era literary figures (from Allan Quatermain to Captain Nemo to Jekyll & Hyde to the Invisible Man) join together to combat a greater threat? The concept was so irresistible, that it was immediately snatched up by Hollywood for a motion picture (one that, while retaining some elements of the comic, significantly altered others).

I had mixed feelings about the first series, as I tend to about most things by Alan Moore. It was audacious...but more could've been done with it. Moore and O'Neil seemed unable to decide if they were doing an adventure, or a cynical parody of an adventure (but generally leaning toward the latter).

No doubt it will strike some as heretical of me, but there were aspects of the critically reviled movie that I enjoyed considerably more than the comics (not the least of which being a greater heart and humanity).

This sequel, recently collected in soft cover (having previously been collected in hardcover), has the League becoming embroiled in an alien invasion from Mars. And, as it ends with the dissolution of the League, it seems also intended to be the last story, as well.

Judging this is problematic, because it depends entirely on what you're looking for. The whole point of the series is to work in allusions to period literature, as Moore and O'Neill demonstrate their almost encyclopedic knowledge of stories by everyone from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Charles Dickens. Obviously, that's part of the fun, and fans have compiled annotations on-line to help you out. But "spot-the-reference" can only take you so far. And it tends to undermine any kind of emotional resonance, as you realize that often a scene or character only exists as a set up for yet another reference.

Volume 2 is, itself, one giant reference -- to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. In fact, in the basic unfolding of the story, one is kind of left to ask, just what exactly have Moore and O'Neill brought to the table? When mid-way through characters are shocked to see Martian tripods marching across the horizon, the reader is more likely to just shrug and say, "Oh, I wondered when they'd show up." As well, Moore has trouble integrating his characters into the story. It's an "adventure" story where little that's adventurous occurs as the heroes tend to sit about on the sidelines. When Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray are sent to retrieve a secret weapon midway through, it hardly required those particular characters (a parcel post courier could've done the same).

Of the characters, the one that fascinates Moore most is the notorious Mr. Hyde (not even his more demure alter ego of Dr. Jekyll). It's a character Moore has reimagined as a towering incredible Hulk wannabe. Hyde is a bloodthirsty psychopath, who nonetheless develops an affection for Mina, and clearly Moore likes exploring the notion that a monster can have flashes of sentimentality. Hyde remains an unrepentant monster, even as he's the only character who does much or accomplishes anything. And Moore's clear fascination with, even glamourization, of him can actually be disturbing.

And therein lies the rub. Alan Moore is routinely heralded as just about the greatest comicbook writer who ever lived, and is embraced as a man who has redeemed the potential of comics with his sophistication. His classic superhero saga, The Watchmen, is seen as an antidote to puerile mainstream superheroes. However, Moore, in many respects, is a champion of all the worst vices in mainstream comics. For all the thin veneer of sophistication, Moore clearly revels in violence and brutality. Moore also tends to brutalize his female characters in his stories, either just for the shock value of, say, here seeing Mina beaten for a page and a half, or as a plot device to provide motivation, not for her, but for male characters (in this case, Hyde). Of course, it's hard to entirely single out the mistreatment of women in a story so full of violence, dismemberment and homosexual rape of male characters as this is.

Even giving Moore the benefit of the doubt, he tends to approach his material as intellectual abstractions. One doesn't believe Moore cares about his characters, or expects us to. They exist as props to be moved about according to some intellectual conceit. Moore's obsession with kinky sex and sexual dysfunction in so many of his stories, it could be argued, stems from his intellectual obsession with tackling ideas that most comics wouldn't (which, ironically, ends up being an unintended tribute to the sophistication of mainstream super heroes -- that the only taboos Moore can find that will push the envelope are brutal violence, misogyny, and sexual fetishes). Unfortunately, he explores those themes to the exclusion of much else.

His awkward attempt at a romance between Mina and Allan is just that...awkward, failing to portray any genuine warmth between the two as Mina makes snide comments until, out of the blue, inviting Allan into her bed. Which again, just seems to lead, not into a tender sequence of shared intimacy, but a kinky sex scene as Mina -- the erstwhile victim of Dracula -- begs Allan to bite her.

Moore seems to want to "deconstruct" the very notion of heroism, and particularly the idea of British heroism, as the British Moore seems trapped in a kind of ethnic self-loathing that he can't get out of. In many respects the "hero", Hyde, is a loathsome psychopath. Of course, all this may be unfair, as the story continually weaves back and fourth as to how seriously we are meant to take it. Occasionally it even breaks into out and out silliness (a caricature of Rupert Bear makes an appearance). Unfortunately, the creators don't run with the humour enough. Reading the back cover joke bios of Moore and O'Neill, or some of the very funny accompanying mock "ads" and activities included (a League board game and more), one can't help thinking that more of that in the story itself might have gone a long way to forgive the thin plot and unsavoury characterizations.

Also included in the series is a mock travelogue, detailing points of interest in England and the world that are derived from works of fantasy literature. I just didn't see the point, other than to show us how well read Alan Moore is. If he wanted to include a bibliography, or a "recommended reads" of 19th and early 20th Century fiction, more power to him. But rattling off a bunch of places that will have no meaning for most readers? Some will enjoy the detective work of trying to track down the references. But for the rest of us?

Kevin O'Neill's art is impressive, though, likewise, it depends on what you're looking for. It's detailed, but cartoony, so that when, for example, a sex scene arises, the visuals don't exactly lend themselves to eroticism (not that that was probably the point). Like the story it's illustrating, there's an underlining ugliness to the work, a harshness. Yet it's also delightfully detailed and quirky, with a nice narrative style that generally tells the story well. Had the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen been a genuine adventure series, or one where we were really meant to be caught up in the mood and the emotion of the thing, O'Neill's art probably would've been ill-suited. But as it is, it's intriguing and intricate.

At the end of the day, for all the blind praise by hardcore fanboys, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 2, is a curious concoction. Visually intriguing, occasionally clever in the dialogue and phrasing, it can certainly keep you turning the pages. But the plot is thin, the "adventure" rather less than exciting, the characters largely uninteresting. If taken seriously, it's an appallingly nihilistic, unsavoury, occasionally quite brutal exercise in "shock" and excess. But if not taken seriously, as may be the point...well, it just ain't that funny.

Soft cover price: $22.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA.


The Legend of Robin Hood
see Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood


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