I’m not really sure how to start this one. I feel like I might be writing about this subject a few years too late, but it’s taken just as long to get to the point where I can write about. So here it goes. I’ve had a mixed relationship, or perhaps it’d be better to say I’ve had ambivalent feelings towards Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I know I’ve touched on this issue before, not specifically with regards to Alan Moore’s works, but the idea of writing on a geek or comics subject. I don’t think I have to say that I’m obviously neither impartial nor unbiased when I’m thinking something that, let’s face it, I love.
The subject of love is an appropriate segue into my journey into The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Sometimes, more often than most might think, you don’t see it coming. I watched Hollywood’s version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and I have to say, I was less than impressed. Aside from the fact that Tom Sawyer should not have been as old or even existed in the same time period as Allan Quatermain, Mina Harker, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, Dorian Grey, and Captain Nemo, there were so many poor decisions and tone-deaf moments in that film that even back in the day, far before I ever read the comics, I knew something was terribly wrong with this story. And it was a pity too. After all, here were all these Victorian characters brought together as a team to fight Victorian literary antagonists. I could see how good it could and should have been, even with my limited understanding of Victorian literature of the science-fiction genre and otherwise. But it just didn’t get there and I forgot about it for a few years.
It was a few years later that I actually started reading comics again, this time what some might call adult comics or at least those with more literary subtexts and maturity. I’d gotten through Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and decided, after reading and enjoying Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta and Watchmen that I would take The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volumes I and II out of the library: realizing that they were the source material for the film I saw and barely remembered aside from it being bad to mediocre a few years back.
What I found in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s work was nothing short of excellent. The stories were aeons away from the film. In these volumes we have Wilhelmina Murray, divorced from her former husband Jonathan Harker after being preyed upon and aiding to defeat Dracula, and becoming instrumental in the recruitment of the League for the Victorian British government. She finds the intimidating Sikh Prince Dakkar, more commonly known as Captain Nemo, the explorer Allan Quatermain, the vicious Mr. Hyde persona that alternates with a poor and dejected Dr. Jekyll, and the disturbing Invisible Man Hawley Griffin.
There is no Dorian Grey or weirdly out of place Tom Sawyer. Captain Nemo hates the British for taking over his homeland. Allan Quatermain is a drug addict after years of adventuring and psychic trauma. Mr. Hyde is a giant, literal monster that barely keeps himself from brutalizing people because he can – having mostly consumed the well-intentioned persona of Dr. Jekyll – and the Invisible Man is a psychopathic predator who uses his invisibility to get away with wanton murder, rape, and torture. There is no vampire Mina Harker. If anything, Wilhelmina Murray is the most rational person in the entire group and as such is its leader: and even she can be an unpleasant, cold, and brittle human being.
Of course, that is the thing about heroes: if you took characters from the nineteenth century with its casual discrimination and imperialism and give them all human flaws with incredible power, ingenuity, and will with a license to, if you will pardon the expression, kill by the British Empire this may be what you will get. Of course, you can say the same thing for the masked heroes of Watchmen to an extent: in addition to the fact that if you go far enough into humanity’s history, from Classic Greece and further back, most heroes are beings of great power that do horrible things in the name of the good of the faction that they choose to serve, so – really – there is nothing new here to that extent. I don’t think I’m telling anything you don’t already know.
I know that there is another thing I can state that most Alan Moore fans and detractors already know. One distinctive element of Alan Moore’s style, aside from his focus on the cerebral and literary allusions, and rape as a plot device is – really – how he portrays the humanity of his characters and, for the most part, he seems to take a very dim view of that humanity. Wilhelmina Murray is almost constantly critical, Allan Quatermain tries to lose himself in his addictions and is pretty much what some might consider to be “a weak man,” most of the background characters are ignorant, dirty, and worst treacherous and indulge in sex and violence, and authority only tries to do relative good when it wants to maintain or expand its power over the rest.
I’m not really selling this, am I. Why would I and others like something as gritty and ugly as this all seems to be? I mean, obviously not all of Alan Moore’s characters fall into this trope of unpleasant and venial humanity. Certainly the characters in Promethea and even the protagonist of The Ballad of Halo Jones have some hope and idealism within them despite meeting great adversity. And our world, historically and contemporarily speaking, doesn’t exactly smell like roses or contain the better angels of any human behaviour. Alan Moore’s work does appeal to a form of misanthropy which even I still feel to this day and you can see just how infectious that element can be over the supposedly greatest ideals and sentiments that humanity can have.
But there is more to this and it starts with world-building. Imagine every Victorian or turn of the century fictional novel existing in the same shared universe. I’ve read of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula being an influence on the creation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – a world where Dracula defeats the hunters coming for him and takes over the British Empire – but one strength Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s series possesses is that it doesn’t focus on the central and most important literary characters but often those of a secondary kind in major novels or short stories and protagonists in more obscure texts. What Alan Moore succeeds in doing is creating a world where vampires exist, but also Lovecraftian creatures, and magical wardrobes, and lost continents, and alternate governments, heroes, monsters, and legends. He creates a more magical and science-fictional world with “science-pirates” like Robur and Nemo reigning over air and sea, and the sexual escapades of Fanny Hill are real scandalous journalistic accounts, and in all of that there is still room for honour, nobility and more importantly a great sense of wonder.
And there have been other Leagues. From the time of Queen Gloriana, The League’s version of Elizabeth the First as a powerful Queen of the Fae, there have been beings of great power and mind serving Britain and sometimes even saving the world. It’s also true that more often than not these agents or adventurers may not always fight fair, or even know what kind of hell they are being sent into or made to unleash, and the story arcs do not always end “heroically,” but they always have a sense of wonder: both beautiful and terrible.
What is humanity in the face of all that vast terror, mystery and, eventually, eternity? It is this question that specifically attracts me and made me follow the personal journeys of Wilhelmina Murray, Allan Quatermain, and eventually the immortal sex-changing, gender-fluid Orlando in particular. If you don’t want any spoilers and you want to read this books, do not read any further. I can give some advice as to which of the books are the strongest and which I think you can do without, but I’d rather my opinion not influence any first time potential readers beyond anything it already has and, honestly, you will like what you like. It is a series definitely worth going through and you come to your conclusions about the conclusion so far. All that being said, if you have read this far and you want to go further and farther, it’s all going to come down to some character analyses and more personal opinions. Remember, you have been warned.
I recall that, as I said already, I didn’t think much of Wilhelmina Murray in the beginning. In fact, even before I read League I often got her and her dear friend Lucy Westenra confused in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This changed after watching her evolve as a character from the new origins that Alan Moore gave her. Wilhelmina Murray’s brittle, snappish behaviour was actually a mask for a lot of hurt and trauma that she went through in her ventures with her ex-husband Jonathan Harker against Count Dracula. She lost her best friend Lucy to the Count while almost becoming another one of his vampire women herself. But we are led to believe that there were some complexities in her encounters with Dracula: things that were hinted on in the novel and continuously teased throughout the corners of League, but never truly outright confirmed.
The truth seems to be that Wilhelmina Murray, at least on the proper Victorian surface, was a conservative music teacher of the period but that in itself is notable: as she was an independently employed and educated woman in the Victorian era. Moreover, divorce – especially from the upper middle class society she was born into – was unheard of, especially for a woman to initiate, and she marched through the stigma and the resulting lack of gainful employment opportunities to attempt to start her life over again after the debacle with Dracula and his hunters. This shows an intense strength of will and, combined with her experiences and knowledge of hunting the supernatural, also made her asset to British intelligence at that time. We never really hear about her former husband or the child Quincey Harker who was supposed to have been born towards the end of Dracula. Whether Dracula’s depredations on Wilhelmina Murray cost her the birth of her son, or he is independent somewhere else, or he was simply retconned out of existence by Moore is a whole other matter entirely.
But, by the standards of that time, Wilhelmina Murray is “a scandalous woman” by the mere fact of being a divorcee and independent woman, and this isn’t mentioning that she is the leader of the League. For all of her standoffish behaviour, it’s often the result of men belittling, ignoring, or even becoming aggressive towards her. Out of all the League members, with the exception of perhaps Allan Quatermain, she is also the least vengeful or petty. She does not enjoy inflicting violence or death on her opponents, even those that have personally hurt her and she genuinely just wants to help people.
And as you can see, even by this summary alone, Wilhelmina Murray has a lot of challenges to work through. She is the one that ultimately risks her life to recruit the first members of her first League and has to keep all of their egos and aggression in check. She makes the plans and gathers intelligence. And all the while she is still dealing with her scars, figuratively and literally, left by Dracula and the physical and emotional abuse inflicted on her by the treachery of the Invisible Man in Volume II of the series.
At the same time, as you read through the first two books you get to see some of Wilhelmina Murray’s character growth and revelations. You find out that Allan Quatermain was actually her hero growing up and it explains just why she is harder on him than all the other members of the League: that the person she admired and had been greatly attracted to had become such a dependent drug-addicted wreck. She needs him to snap out of it to serve the League and his country, but also she wants her hero back. By the time of the first two volumes Allan Quatermain is at least in his seventies, but this does not dim Wilhelmina Murray’s attraction to the former big game hunter.
And of course there is the shadow in the room of Dracula. It seems to be a situation or a theme that Moore also touches upon with the character of Wendy in his and Melinda Gebbie’s sexually graphic work Lost Girls. Wilhelmina Murray may have had fantasies of someone or something like the Count doing aggressive things to her that her fiancee and then husband Jonathan Harker was simply incapable, and she might have appreciated the much older and more experienced gentleman’s charm, but perhaps his mesmeric abilities overwhelmed her freewill and left the most brutal physical scars on her neck. This physical trauma is the greatest source of shame to Wilhelmina Murray and it is the reason that she almost always wears a scarf around her neck: as though she is some sort of “soiled woman” for being taken advantage. What is worse is that possibly due to the Count’s supernatural abilities, she actually may have been compelled to “love” what he did to her and while her subconscious desires and body may still desire those elements, she was still violated nonetheless. Just because she may have had the fantasy, did not mean she wanted to actually indulge it against her will.
It is a slippery slope to create a psycho-sexual look at Wilhelmina Murray’s early character in Moore’s work and that would be an article all in itself: especially looking at Victorian mores and the exoticization of the male vampire and the idea that active or aggressive female sexuality was seen as abnormal back in the day. But it is interesting to see how she navigates this shame and exploited desire turned into a sexual fetish or kink with Allan Quatermain in a safer environment that she initiates and evolves when her neck is accidentally revealed to him. At the end of Volume II however, in the wake of a Martian invasion in which the League is used without their knowledge to gain a biological weapon used on the invaders and the British populace, the deaths of most of her League, the angry leave-taking of Captain Nemo, along with the Invisible Man’s trauma and everything else coming to catch up with her Wilhelmina Murray leaves Allan Quatermain on his own and retreats to an all-female colony of Coradine. Of course, this isn’t the end of her story and she does reunite with Allan Quatermain later on in the back matter of Volume II.
Allan Quatermain is another interesting character. He was a British big game hunter and adventurer that went to Africa and a great series of adventures. However, after many personal losses – including that of his wife and son along with many of his comrades – he faked his own death. Quatermain returned to England in secret and partook of his friend Lady Ragnall’s drug of choice taduki in an attempt to remove his cares away from the outside world. Instead, it astrally propelled his consciousness into a dreamland where he combated various Lovecraftian creatures, one of which going so far as to temporarily possess his mind and body. As a result, he experienced great psychic trauma and without his drug of choice he went to Cairo to lose himself in an opium den.
It is Wilhelmina Murray that finds him there and he refuses to join her, only to do so when deciding to defend her from her would-be rapists: killing them with his gun. Despite many fallible moments of weakness, including abandoning her on a mission to find Mr. Hyde in order to buy some drugs from a pharmacy, Allan Quatermain’s conscience still shone through and his marksmanship remained undiminished. For all he was a blustering, jealous and sometimes even cowardly man, it almost made him more heroic to overcome these handicaps in order to do the right thing: protecting his friends and comrades, following Wilhelmina Murray’s orders and completing the League’s missions. He was also incredibly self-conscious as, when Wilhelmina Murray continued to needle him with criticism he would always react irritably or in a consoling manner and he simply didn’t understand why she chose to seduce him when he saw himself as a scarred, withered, old man.
I will admit that Allan Quatermain, for all I never read any of his creator H. Rider Haggard’s books, grew on me in a similar way to Wilhelmina Murray. The story arc in Volume II where he opened himself up to Wilhelmina Murray about his late wife and her sharing similar neck scars and probably having had sex with someone he loved for the first time in decades was touching: just as it was devastating to watch the comics segment of Volume II end with Wilhelmina Murray leaving him alone and dejected on a bench after the Martian debacle.
And then we get to Orlando. We actually find Orlando through the back-matter of Volume II where Allan Quatermain and Wilhelmina Murray are reunited in British Intelligence’s quest to create a new League. The fact of the matter is, it’s been several years and Allan isn’t getting any younger. Presumably his life of hard-living and drug abuse, as well as old age, hadn’t been doing any favours for his health. More likely than not, he’s dying but he also wants to “perform better sexually” for Wilhelmina in a younger body. However, he knows of a way to potentially deal with this issue. Allan and Wilhelmina go to Africa to find the Pool of Fire: essentially a Fountain of Youth that will restore someone to the prime of their life and grant them immortality. And they succeed. Allan Quatermain becomes young and healthy again, and Wilhelmina Murray gains immortality in a way that isn’t the result of vampirism.
They gain the opportunity for a whole new life. In fact, they had gained the potential for entirely new lifetimes. It is on a trip to the Himalayas that they find Orlando: in her female form engaging in a sexual ritual with one of the tantric masters there. While I had grown attached to Wilhelmina and Allan, Orlando fascinated me most of all. Much of Orlando’s actual life can be found in The Black Dossier. Orlando is over three thousand years old. He, or she, perhaps even the pronoun of they, had been the child of Tiresias and inherited his sex-changing curse from the gods. Orlando had millennia of experiences from being a slave, to a sailor and a pirate, to a soldier many times, a warrior more often, and a lover to many, many more. Apparently Orlando, after centuries of different names, was even Roland from The Song of Roland among other characters. It is worth mentioning that Alan Moore created Orlando based off of Virginia Woolf’s gender-changing protagonist of the same name. What is also good to note is the fact that Orlando had actually been a member of the first League ever created back in Gloriana’s Age under the leadership of the Duke Prospero: which is how Orlando is related to Wilhelmina and Allan. At some point earlier in their life, they had also found the Pool of Fire and gained immortality.
Orlando, having developed through ages of blood, death, and sex had entertained themselves by indulging in violence and, well, sex as well as adventuring. The immortal explains that they have survived this long due to the fact that they are shallow, though it becomes clear that the real reason is that they are always keeping themselves busy. Orlando makes it clear to the couple that immortality is a very long time and that eventually, due to boredom or a need for change they are capable of doing almost anything to keep stimulated. What results from this meeting are two things: the first being that Orlando rejoins the League or Wilhelmina’s second group, and that the three of them become mutual lovers.
Many fans have considered The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier to be the weakest of the series due to its extensive epistolary format: how its comics narrative is divided between different forms of letters, strips, journal entries, treatises and prose stories: more so than even Watchmen. Another issue might also be the fact that unlike the other League books, Black Dossier takes place in 1958 instead of the Victorian Age. And I think this the part where I begin to get personal about this subject.
I really love The Black Dossier. I like how Alan Moore expands on his creative conceit: on a world based off of literary characters changing from Victorian times into the fifties. The Britain he presents us with is a post-IngSoc England. In that timeline, in 1948 Big Brother came to power and then eventually died and had his Party overthrown. Wilhelmina and Allan come back into Britain, having long since split away from the government and in hiding, to retrieve the Black Dossier that contains all information on their group. We get to read about gods, mythical beings, a “lost Shakespearean folio,” some IngSoc pornography, and so much more in a gritty environment of spies and flying cars. But what I really loved about The Black Dossier was the relationship between Wilhelmina, Allan, and Orlando.
Allan and Wilhelmina are disguised in Britain. But you can see that both of them, for all they court danger, are now more relaxed than ever. Wilhelmina herself at times courts relations from an otherwise oblivious Allan until she realizes that she has to be more overt in what she wants from him. There is a charming scene where they get food together and she even buys him some corny and risque postcards. There are postcards in the Dossier too that they had been sending each other back and forth throughout the years and to other League members: but especially each other. You can tell that they have been together for a long time: long past common-law status. Wilhelmina has mastery of some martial arts now in the realm of self-defence and Allan, while still fussy at times, seems to take a lot of things in some very good humour. For all they still work in espionage and skulduggery, they genuinely look happy.
And then towards the end of The Black Dossier and from clues from the back-matter of Volume II, you find out that they and Orlando have been working for Prospero in a realm called the Blazing World: a place of mythical beings and spirits, wonders, and eternity. When they are reunited with Orlando in that realm, all three of them look incredibly happy and the story leaves off with Prospero introducing the Blazing World and breaking the fourth wall to us readers in order to do so. It would have been such a beautiful, glorious way to end off The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a series: not so much with these immortal characters, now truly eternal in a world of literature and Moore’s concept of “Ideaspace” going off into the sunset, but existing forever along with everyone ever written or existent in a realm of perpetual sunrise.
I really wish that the series, with the characters in a polyamorous relationship, and in a realm of “pure imagination” — of an eternity in world literature – had finally ended there.
But it didn’t.
And in Part II of “Where’s Our Moon Over Soho in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” we see love inevitably turn into shit.