The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

British writer Alan Moore is something of a guru (and counter-culture icon) among die-hard aficionados of comic books and graphic novels. Since the late 1970s this incredibly prolific author has challenged tradition and conventionality in the comic book form, taking his works into the arena of adult readerships (and adult themes) with a succession of genre-busting stories that have in some cases single-handedly reinvented the field. His name is synonymous with such seminal works as ‘V for Vendetta’ (1982–1985), ‘Watchmen’ (1986–1987) and ‘From Hell’ (1991–1996), as well as numerous other stories or collections for some of the biggest publishing names and titles in the comics’ industry, including Marvel UK, DC Comics, 2000AD and others.

However, graphic novels and comics are in the main a collaborative effort, normally between the writer and one or more illustrators, and Moore has always had the knack of cannily partnering up with some of the best artists in the business, and perhaps none more so than British artist and long-time collaborator Kevin O’Neill. Both were stalwarts of the British cult Science-Fiction and Fantasy comic ‘2000AD’, being among its earliest staff members, and both jointly or separately contributed to some of its greatest characters and stories, including ‘Skizz’ (1983), ‘The Ballad of Halo Jones’ (1984-1986), ‘D.R. and Quinch’ (1983-1985), and of course ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ (1980-). But it was their coming together in 1999 that produced one of the most influential and certainly most admired comic book series of recent times, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’.

Moore’s concept was to take some of the greatest characters and stories of Victorian literature, chiefly the ‘scientific romances’ and ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the late 1800s, as well as some of the classic tales of detective and gothic fiction of that era, add in some hefty doses of 19th and early 20th century history (or ‘hidden history’) and create a sort of superhero community for the Victorian age – the eponymous ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ of the title. Though this was not the first time such a mixture of real and fictional elements had been attempted, either in comic book form or in conventional literature (British neo-Victorian writer Kim Newman in his influential ‘Anno Dracula’ novel of 1992 had already ploughed this fertile field, though even he was following in the footsteps of Philip José Farmer and others), few had approached it with such imagination or wealth of knowledge. Figures from the works of Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as many others, mingled together in one of the most celebrated creations of recent comics’ history, all under the welcoming umbrella of the ‘Steampunk‘ or ‘Dark Fantasy’ genre.

Yet this was only half the story, for it was the artistic imagination and flair of illustrator Kevin O’Neill that brought Moore’s vision alive, as page after page was filled with some of the best work of late 1990s comic art, with a vision of a Victorian London that owed homage to the fog-bound city of so much Victorian melodrama, of a thousand Spring-Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper yarns.

The original stories were published first in serialized form and then as a graphic novel under the title of ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I’ (1999), and it was with this and subsequent graphic novels that most readers were familiar and which won such acclaim (and numerous reprints).

However the story was not without its faults. Though there was no doubting the imagination of Alan Moore as writer, or Kevin O’Neill as an illustrator, it was arguably neither man’s greatest work. Moore’s writing, though generally excellent, was still nowhere near the quality found in his ‘Watchmen’ series or even the earliest of his works like ‘The Ballad of Halo Jones’. There was a certain degree of coldness in the story and a lack of realism in places within the narrative that made it hard at times to believe in or care about, while the characters often had the feel of paper thinness, and it was difficult to find any real sympathy or even empathy with them. Likewise O’Neill’s artwork, though always fine, lacked the polished imagination and attention to detail that characterized so much of his earlier career. Anyone for instance familiar with his drawing for the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ stories in the weekly ‘2000AD’ comic of the 1980s will find some of the illustrations in the first volume of the ‘League’ series somewhat disappointing, as if at times the artist had almost become a pastiche of himself, reduced to the most minimalist and markedly ‘O’Neill-like’ techniques in his depictions.

The follow-up book, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II’ (2003), though less successful than the first, was much more imaginative it its presentation, with a mocked-up Victorian ‘Boys Own’ feel about it, like some 19th century British periodical for young men about town, filled with clever fictional advertisements, short stories and biographies that were typical of the propagandist publications of the ‘Pax Britannica’ era, and which suited the whole tone and mood of the story beautifully. Yet it too bore many of the same flaws as the first volume, O’Neill’s drawing style increasingly laconic or impressionistic in some panels, while Moore’s writing largely failed to create any real emphatic relationship with the reader (not helped by a somewhat gratuitous and juvenile ‘rape’ in the narrative). It was as if at times Moore was attempting, but failing, to deal with adult themes – a surprise for a writer of such proven ability and obvious adult sensibilities.

The third publication in the sequence was ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier’ (2007), which in narrative terms was largely a sort of background book to the entire series, a standalone or intermediary graphic novel between volumes II and III. It was mostly taken up with prose stories, letters, maps, guidebooks and magazines all within the imagined ‘League’ universe and though of some interest did little to drive the overall story forward.

The third book in the series proper, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III’, is being published in three self-contained stories or parts, forming an overall narrative arch, the first part being ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910’ (2009). In general it continued the down-ward slide of the stories in terms of the quality of the writing, if not the artwork. Despite this it remains a worthy read for those wishing to know where Moore takes the characters that an admittedly large comics’ readership has invested such considerable time and effort in, though those expecting the same relatively high standard of the first volume of the series will be largely disappointed.

The League books continue to inspire many and are frequently cited as the chief expression of the ‘Steampunk’ genre of Science-Fiction in graphic novel form. Imitators are numerous, both in comics and in more conventional novels, and of course a movie version, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ (2003), has graced the silver screen, in some places arguably better in narrative terms than the original graphic novel upon which it was loosely based.

For those who love the comic or graphic novel form, and the ‘Steampunk’ genre too, the ‘League’ books, for all their flaws, will remain favorites and are well worth reading (and judging) for yourself.

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