Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 2

- available in both hard cover (2003) and soft cover (2004)

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

Reprinting: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 2 six issue mini-series (2002-2003)

228 pages

Published by America's Best Comics (an imprint of DC Comics)

Cover price: $14.95 USA / $22.95 CDN.

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mini-series 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'Neill 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. But 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 one 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 won't. 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.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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

Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine