Pulp and Dagger


With the up-coming release of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen motion picture -- starring Sean Connery, Peta Wilson, and others -- Pulp and Dagger looks back at the movie's genesis, the original comic book mini-series (and subsequent trade paperback collection).

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. 1

2002 - available in both hard and soft coverr (pictured)

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.

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

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

Set in a kind of alternate reality 1898, this story 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 much earlier critically regarded, award winning, comic book super hero epic, 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 Internet annotations, as they did for The Watchmen, for those wanting to fill in the gaps). That can all be fun, particularly scenes in a secret annexe of the British Museum with exhibits from Gulliver's Travels and other stories. However, although that's very clever...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, once revealed, seems more parochial. As well, 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 the city of 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.

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 (currently unfolding on the comic stands in its serialized form). Once again, we have a comic book work that fails to be a graphic novel and is, instead, just an initial episode of an ongoing series (albeit the villiany is thwarted in the end).

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, discerning readers will notice that some of O'Neill's illustrations clash with later aspects of the plot.  The villain's great, original weapon seems to be in common usage in the earlier chapters!)

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 The 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 more agreeable than some of the other 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 nations 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. Evoking and satirizing. 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, comic book 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).

The League enjoyed critical notice on its own when first published, but it also owes a lot of its prestige to the fact that Hollywood snapped it up almost instantly for a movie adaptation. Comics, still suffering from the "grass is always greener" syndrome, see validation if Hollywood comes a-courting. But Moore's story just isn't that strong, so that it comes as no surprise that according to some rumours, the movie slated to hit the theatres has diverged from the original comic, not just in plot, but even some of the literary characters used have been changed.

You finish this TPB collection 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.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com

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