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League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Best Comics of 2012: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009

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loegcentury2009fcwebA captivating mess of contradictions, Century 2009 showed perhaps more strongly than any other work that an Alan Moore not operating at the height of his powers remains more compelling than most other writers in comics. Perhaps only he could get away with putting out a comic that was in many ways so flawed, yet which still remained one of the most essential reads of the year.

For fans of the series and its ongoing plot, this was easily the most satisfying instalment of the third volume – in contrast to 1910 and 1969, which, for their strengths, had faltered in providing a solid, structured narrative (or, in the case of the former, any real discernible story at all). At times it’s difficult to look upon this volume as being the same comic as the original first series, but the through-thread of Mina’s life with the League remains its heart and spine, while the tale of her relationship with Allan here reached a final and devastating conclusion.

The Haddo/Antichrist plot had felt slightly uninspired during 1969, but here resolved itself superbly; the twin twists of Haddo’s unhappiness at being shunted into the background of his own plan, and the revelation that the Antichrist of twentieth-century fiction is none other than – basically – Harry Potter (albeit with elements of a few other characters chucked in), render the climax of the tale an odd and unsettling one rather than any kind of huge apocalyptic battle. The Potter analogue was particularly inspired (if a little mean-spirited), while the identity of the pretty-much-literal deus ex machina who shows up to save the day even more of a riot. Here, as with both the Moore and Craig Bonds showing up in the same panel (while the Judi Dench “M” was revealed as an older Emma Peel), or the BBC3-teenager dialogue of the ultimate villain, was Moore simply having tremendous, clever fun with his concept, as he has done with League since the beginning.

And yet at times it was hard to shake the feeling that the book had lost its way satirically, somewhat.  In stark contrast to how he had handled the literary references in the series’ early days, 2009 gave the sense that Moore didn’t really understand the cultural world he was spearing. All manner of hat-tips to Armando Iannucci and co. can’t mask the fact that so much of where 2009 placed itself seemed to miss the point, and leave Moore coming across as a crotchety old man grumbling about the youth of today. This extended to the often half-arsed application of the series’ fabled use of fictional cameos – where once they were subtle and clever or integrated carefully into the background of the story, here we just saw a succession of characters (some not even immediately recognisable) in the foreground of panels, peering out at the reader. In some cases these were even anachronistic – okay, so Doctor Who is a time traveller, but nevertheless the Matt Smith incarnation is utterly irrelevant to the cultural milieu of the year 2009 (having only debuted on New Year’s Day in 2010). Perhaps an unimportant example, but it’s never really been possible to accuse Alan Moore of lacking attention to detail before now, so to be able to do so here feels unsettling.

Fortunately, where the book excelled – in the character work with Mina, Allan and (yes, finally!) Orlando, in the mesmerisingly horrific denouement, in unexpectedly setting up an entirely female possible future League (finally once and for all rendering the series’ umbrella title utterly meaningless), in its peerless metatextuality, in O’Neill’s one-of-a-kind, frequently terrifying visuals – rendered these concerns less relevant than they might otherwise have been. Century 2009 may have seen Moore reach a little further than he was able to successfully grasp when it came to turning his gaze up on the stories of others – but fortunately, in and of itself it was one of his own strongest stories for some time.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910

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A new League book is always cause for celebration, as Moore’s sole ongoing piece of comics work, but it’s fair to say that this one – the first story from the third volume, “Century”,  hasn’t quite had us breaking out the fireworks. So why is that?

Part of the problem is the format – although the book is loosely structured around the story of Nemo’s daughter making the transition from carefree princess to becoming the new pirate captain of the Nautilus, that story does disappear for vast swathes of the pagetime. The decision to release Century in thirds, something more than issues but less than graphic novels, plays with reader expectations slightly too much – this might be big enough to contain a full narrative, but it is, instead, unquestionably the opening act of a wider story. As such, the pace is slow, the structure is weak and the plotting mostly consists of things that one imagines will be paid off in future volumes.

That’s not to say it’s not entertaining – the returning Mina and Quatermain are joined by Orlando, also seen in the Black Dossier, and various other miscreants and outcasts from fiction throughout history. The closest thing we see to an antagonist is Haddo, the League’s Alistair Crowley analogue, and it’s his potential threat, along with Carmacki’s prophetic visions, that drive the action forward as the League, such as it currently is, attempts to unravel what’s going on – which, as it turns out, isn’t actually very much.

Moore’s Victorian wit utterly shines through in the dialogue, and O’Neill’s artwork in particular is as brilliant as it’s ever been, and there’s a particularly brilliant moment with Norton, Prisoner of London, as he snaps back to the “present” – after so long regarding O’Neill’s artwork as shorthand for “the past” it’s appropriately jarring to see him now rendering present-day King’s Cross in all its glory. For a change, the frequently prose section at the end of this volume is almost as enjoyable as the preceeding comic, and vastly outclasses the previous attempts. As a collection of very short vignettes, it offers some welcome references to other League stories and some all-new material as well, all of which have their own strengths – it’s a far more preferable supplement than Volume 2’s utterly impenetrable almanac was.

Although written by one of the most technically proficient writers ever seen in comics, there are some moments where the book falters a little, as it tries to move beyond the usual boundaries of a comic. Moore has made frequent attempts at inserting musical elements into comics for decades now, and always with mixed success. While it’s completely like him to try and take the medium to new places, there’s a sense that after yet another lukewarm attempts, it might be time to admit that a comicbook musical might simply be beyond the capabilities of the form. Certainly, the songs – or rather, lyrics – in this story don’t really work on their own terms.

Since the last instalment of League, The Black Dossier, was Moore at his experimental best, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by – songs aside – this volume’s return to more traditional comics. For the first time, we get an instalment of the League that doesn’t definitively better its predecessor. The best excuse for that, of course, is that we’re not supposed to be evaluating it as a complete work – but when it’s presented as such, it’s a little hard to get out of that mindset. It delivers all the elements one could expect from the League – obscure references, in-jokes, a peculiarly English mix of polite reservedness and dark, unforgiving cynicism – but when it comes down to it, it’s just not a satisfying narrative – in a couple of years, when the series is complete, one suspects these complaints will be entirely moot. Unfortunately, that point is still some time away.