April / May 2004

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volumes I & II

Written by Allan Moore - Illustrated by Kevin O'Neill

As the year 1898 draws to a close, trouble is brewing in London's East End. A criminal mastermind has stolen the only extant sample of the artificial mineral cavorite, intending to use its remarkable abilities to power an immense flying machine from which to rain death down on the city. British intelligence, under the guidance of the mysterious "M," determines that the nation has only one chance. Wilhelmina "Minna" Murray, the former wife of Jonathan Harker, is dispatched to gather together some of England's most "extraordinary" gentlemen to combat the threat.

Minna Murray finds herself in charge of the autocratic and misanthropic Captain Nemo, recovering drug addict adventurer Allen Quartermain, the duplicitous and invisible Hawley Griffen, and timid Dr. Henry Jeckyll and his wonderfully monstrous alter ego, Edward Hyde. Murray herself is no less interesting than her bizarre cohorts, and possessed of a steely courage. But is it enough to triumph over the looming aerial menace?

I haven't seen the movie version of these delightful and absorbing comics, but given the poor reviews it garnered I doubt I'm missing anything. The comic books are pretty adult in tone, extremely and graphically violent in places, and delightfully salacious in others. Moore's writing leaps across genres with magnificent aplomb, and O'Neill keeps pace with him every step of the way, contriving some incredible pages of art and action. I've been a fan of Allan Moore's excellent writing since the bravura series WATCHMEN (also due on film one of these days). The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is, if anything, even better in some respects.

I'm not giving anything away, really, if I say that the six books that make up Volume I detail the search for and discovery of the London lair of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. He is never named as anything other than "The Doctor", but it's obvious who the villain is. The real fun here, aside from the story itself, is in ferreting out all the myriad references to various pulp heroes, comic strips, and Victorian adventure stories that Moore and O'Neill have sprinkled through the story. The result is a rich bouillabaisse (pun directed at Captain Nemo) of a tale that repays multiple readings.

What's not obvious is the identity of "M," which came as a delightful surprise to me, and which I will not give away here.

The second volume concerns a re-telling of H.G.Wells's martian invasion. It opens on Mars itself. Neither Lt. Gulliver Jones nor John Carter and his Tharks, even with assistance from the mysterious sorns, can overcome the horrible Wellsian octopoids and their gigantic tripods. The combined human/martian forces attack the octopoids' outpost just in time to see an invasion fleet take off for Earth.

Not content with using such well-known characters as Nemo, Quartermain, Wells's invisble man, et al, Moore mines over a hundred years worth of popular and pulp fiction for limitless characters and situations. So, for example, on Moore's Mars, the nasty octopids of H.G. Wells are in a state of war with John Carter and the Tharks from Edgar Rice Burroughs, and C.S. Lewis's sorns. Even Lt. Gulliver Jones -- Gulliver of Mars -- has a major part in the first chapter. (Hint -- if you want to see what the mmartians are saying, hold the pages up to a mirror. I never realized Tharks could be so foul-mouthed!)

I love what Moore has done with Edward Hyde, Henry Jeckyll's brutish alter ego, turning him into an eight-foot-tall GIGANTOTHROPUS look-alike. I also enjoyed the prickly developing love affair between Mina Harker, former wife of one of Dracula's thralls, and Allan Quartermain. But really, to say more would be to ruin the utter delight that a broadly-read sf fan will experience with these comics.

And the visuals do not disappoint, either. Kevin O'Neill's drawings complement Moore's text perfectly, and he can go from lyrical depictions to shocking war scenes to high good humor with astonishing facility. The section in which Quartermain and Harker encounter Wells's Dr. Moreau and his animal hybrids is at once hysterically funny and disturbing. I don't know if it was Moore or O'Neill who had the idea to dress the bear-man as the British comic-strip character Rupert, but O'Neill's rendering is priceless. Many other visual in-jokes pepper the pages of this unique volume.

The written sections of these two books are almost as much fun as the comics themselves. Sprinkled with jokes and games and puns like a Sunday supplement, there are also two long written sections. In Volume I it's a tale of interdimensional travel and horror, in which Allen Quartermain meets up with Lovecraft's Randolph Carter (and his uncle, ERB's John Carter!) aboard the Wellsian Time Machine. It's very purple-prose and blood-and-thunder, just what one would expect from a penny dreadful such as Moore is parodying.

Volume II contains a Baedeker account detailing Mina and Allan's trip to fantastic lands around the world. Here Moore really has fun, because he takes Harker and Quartermain (in company of the gender-bending immortal Orlando) on a tour of all the fantastic realms on the globe, from Lovevcraft's Mountains of Madness, to Tyco M. (The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet) Bass's home in California, to Lilliput, Wonderland, Oz, Toyland, Pepperland, and a number of places from the pages of fantasy fiction even yr. obt. svt hasn't heard of! Among the sly jokes are a gathering of famous pirates including S. Clay Wilson's ZAP Comix character, Captain Pissgums.

Highly recommended - not to be missed. Some of the best reading I've come across in many a moon, and tons of fun to boot.

PS - There's a delightful website devoted to annotating the League volumes - almost as much fun as the comics themselves. Highly, therefore, recommended. Happily, Moore has announced his intent to pen additional adventures of the League. All that's left to us now is the waiting...

Notes on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen