So here we are. The last League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not the latest, the last. If one believes the hype, this will be the final comic book published by either Moore or O’Neill – making this not only the summation to a twenty-year saga, but to a full half century of writing and drawing comics. Two of the most respected creators in the whole of English comics having their final say before stepping out the door (to a world in which the royalties are hopefully bigger) forever. No more inner-book adventures so dense with references that at this point any copy comes with a tiny version of Jess Nevins to explain to you who that person smoking a cigarette on panel 2, page 5 is and what is his relation to the complete works of John Dunn. “The Tempest,” of course, was Shakespeare’s last play – so we can’t blame Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw, and Todd Klein of being modest. Not that we’d believe them if they were, if ever a crew in comics had earned the right to crow it is they.
But what about the issue at hand? When the series had started (as part of Alan Moore’s larger ABC line of comics), I considered it to be the lesser of Moore’s work. His output has always been incredibly referential, taking a bit too close to heart Umberto Eco’s maxim about “books always speak of other books,” but League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a series that often felt less like a story, or even a statement, and more like someone bragging about well-read they are.
Not to take away from how well-put these comics were. Moore was always a writer with a very intuitive grasp of how the comics page works, either by itself or as part on issue, and even his worst works often show more craft to them than 99.999% of other writers on their best day. He can knows how many words should fit into a panel to make the moment it depicts flow in real time, how the make each issue feel like an object worthy of your time without overburdening with words.
He often worked with some of the greatest artists around, and in the process seemed to find a way to challenge them to outdo their previous works – LoEG for all of its problems, could always be counted upon to provide fantastic imagery from pencils of Kevin O’Neill. Whether he is drawing in his style or aping the works of others, he always delivers. Black Dossier, in particular, would’ve felt like a big ask even from a team of artist, and it stands as kind of monumental showcase for what O’Neill can do. Yet at the same time Black Dossier kind of felt like the beginning of the end of my interest in reading Moore’s comics, and The Tempest is a direct continuation of that line.
Black Dossier was the craftiest comics ever crafted by a craftsman. It’s hard to find fault in the sheer athletic display of talent involved in melding Shakespeare, Lovecraft, Wolf, Woodhouse, etc. It’s very easy to admire the way the creators adapt themselves to copy and skewer different styles and mods. But for all of its gleaming outer shell, it was a hollow book. The first two volumes of the series told a story, even if it too often took a back seat to Easter egg hunts, and tried to make a semi-coherent point about the British adventure fiction. Whether this was a point that needed to be made – I recall few children extoling the virtues of H. Rider Haggard, but I’m too young and too foreign to know – is beside the question: this was a story that used old literature to make a point about the modern world. (Recall Moore disparaging his earlier work The Killing Joke precisely because the point it made was limited to the world of comics’ continuity and nothing else.)
The Black Dossier had no such point. Rather it delved ever deeper into the labyrinthine nature of its own universe – forging connections and possibilities and making a very elegant fictional construction that had nothing whatsoever to do with world the reader inhabited. This is emblematic of Moore’s later works: the technical acumen is still there, improved even, but it is in service to shallower ideas.
Consider the way From Hell tied together the various myths surrounding the Ripper murders with mysticism, class warfare, and misogyny. How the book leads all the way to a ritual meant to shape and control the coming ages, a metaphorical apocalypse (which would repeat in Promethea, LoEG: Century, and Providence), only to end with supposed victim rejecting the Ripper / male control over herself and the world. This wasn’t just clever writing, this was smart writing. Whereas later Moore is often merely clever – a joy to read, an obvious boon to critics and academics seeking to chew their way through the references, but with a lack of the human heart that gave emotional resonance to Saga of Swamp Thing, Watchmen, and From Hell.
Black Dossier was also a work that could become, for all of its lofty posturing, incredibly petty: the presentation of James Bond as a pathetic figure being kicked down by the true representation of British male heroism, Allan Quatermain. By all means kick down at James Bond and what he stands for – but by making the kicker another version of the colonialist conquering hero, whatever the scene might have had been trying to accomplish loses its value. It felt more like the creators “getting even” with Sean Connery for taking up the role of Quatermain in the abortive League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film (as if starring in that feature wasn’t a punishment enough by itself). This all came to a head in LoEG: Century – a comic book that appears to be a really elaborate and well-illustrated metaphor for an old man yelling at you kids to “get off his lawn and start reading good fiction, like he did when he was their age.”
It’s a very odd take for a writer who never seemed to buy into the idea of a golden age of any sort, the mythic “perfect past” has always been a subject of deconstruction for Moore. Century ends with Marry Poppins (literally) coming down from the heavens to (metaphorically) spank Harry Potter for being not only a bad boy but a bad book as well. And in case the book itself wasn’t clear enough, and it might be the least subtle thing Alan Moore had ever written, an interview later made the point explicit:
“I would say, that if you’re talking about a line of progress, if it can be called progress, that runs from Berthold Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, to Donald Cammell’s Performance, to Harry Potter, I don’t think you can really see that as anything but a decline.” (interview from http://www.comicsbeat.com/interview-with-alan-moore-part-1/).
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen started by poking at Victorian fiction, but somewhere along the way he fell in love with these characters (or with the process of writing them) so much that he can’t let go, and thus they (the Old) triumph over the New and Young, establishing themselves as the eternal unending icons of Britannia. Throughout the 20th century (and the book Century) the League itself doesn’t really change; it’s Allan and Mina and Lando, the mythic past forever stepping over the corrupt and weak future.
Which brings us back to the first issue of The Tempest. In many ways, it is an improvement upon Black Dossier and Century – it seems to harken back to narrative presentation rather than posturing. There is definitely a story here, rather than a non-fiction essay disguised as a comic book. (Why yes, I am looking at you, Providence.) The plot starts right after the previous book and is often dense, but one can follow well enough, even without knowing all the details.
Again, on the surface level there is little to complain about: despite costing the head-shaking price of $4.99, there is much to recommend here: Alan Moore still knows how to think through a multi-temporal and multi-spatial narrative like no one else can; juggling multiple plot threads from all the previous books without losing his sense of rhythm. The art team is still firing on all cylinders. Kevin O’Neill, in particular, always brings to his work a sort of twisted savage undertone – straddling the line between serious science-fiction epic and grotesque. So far, Tempest is less flashy than the two previous volumes; the only break from traditional storytelling is a series of pages portrayed in the form of black and white daily newspaper strips (though one could complain that such a serial wouldn’t waste a week’s worth of strips on people expositing at one another with one decent fisticuffs moment), which just serve to remind you how great at their job all the people involved are.
This is a capable book by very capable people, people obviously doing their best with a large amount of artistic freedom. And yet… there is something tired about the whole affair. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is no longer a story, it is this gigantic fictional structure. A whole world held inside Moore’s and O’Neill’s heads, which they are very busy transcribing to us, making sure it all “makes sense” in terms of tying together pretty much every piece of fiction they can lay their hands on. It’s a heroic effort, but like reading The Silmarillion, the question that arises is: why should I care? The story is not a story and the characters are not characters – they are a delivery mechanism to an act of world building.
At this point me continuing to read Tempest is based mostly on kinetic energy; I’ve already made it this far, might as well see it through the end. And I’m genuinely curious to see the final trick Moore and O’Neill are planning for their grand exit. I truly hope that there is something more here, that this whole saga has greater ambition than creating the most ambitious crossover fanfic in human history. These creators delivered better before, and hopefully they’ll deliver better again.