Curtain Call:

On The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and LoEG: The Tempest #1

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Also by Tom Shapira:

Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century

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2 Comments

  1. I actually agree with you on quite a few points here. Alan Moore is definitely at his strongest when he is actually telling a story, than when he is trying to very bluntly say something about our world, or subvert story tropes all grim and gritty. Of course, none of these things are mutually exclusive: they can all happen at the same time like with Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell.

    I appreciated the first two League stories, both the comics and the prose. After unfortunately watching that god-awful film adaptation, I was surprised to see how … *good* these were. I really saw these flawed, but relatable characters in a setting that was a fusion of different literary references made into a shared universe and it was inspiring. If it makes sense, the fact that Alan and Wilhelmina were flawed made them … human to me, and it compelled me to want to know more about what happened to them. And Orlando was inspired, I really like them a lot and how they all started relating to each other.

    For me, I really liked The Black Dossier because it outlined the most potential to me. It opened up the world. Most epics are basically shared universe fanfics when it comes right down to it. Finally, we could see this triad with their comrades going out and really interacting with all the world and universe had to offer: all the literary universes being one and true. It started to lose me with some of the references, but I always had a soft-spot for 1984, and combining that with this world was inspired as well … and the Blazing World ending, the idea that these characters could exist forever in an imaginarium was, for me, the best possible ending in this series.

    But then Century happened with the subtlety of a brick, and the horror of a story that can’t have a happy ending if immortals can never really end … and … Well, the whole theme of life is shit and you don’t die just undercut that for me. I’ve had some … strong opinions of my own on some of my Sequart articles with regards to The League, and also Moore and some of his critical contemporaries’ attitudes towards Harry Potter and the like. That said, I’ve also had some counter-commentary on my work critiquing those positions, especially on how I absolutely detested the latter parts of Century.

    You make a point about the difference between smart and clever writing that reminds me of something I wrote with regards to The Last Jedi and Rian Johnson’s work on it: that sometimes cleverness does not always for good storytelling make. I think that Moore models a lot of his comics, especially these days, like modernist literature: in make references to other works and other works in other languages without spoon-feeding them to you because he expects you as the reader to read up on them on your own time, to do your “own homework” as it were. I … don’t know how I feel about that. It is challenging, but like you said sometimes you just want Nivens’ annotations to come along with the book so that you … sometimes know what you should care about those references and relations.

    Also, I’ve had issues with how he portrays Bond but I will say it is much more than Quatermain blowing up his futuristic hover car with his hunting rifle. Often, it was Wilhelmina that kicked Sir James’ ass, and that was pretty satisfying: though I will never personally associate Jimmy with the Bond of our popular culture, whatever his literary origins allegedly were. I guess of the two of Moore’s iterations, Quatermain may have been flawed, but he knew he was flawed and admitted to it. Wilhelmina appreciated that much, and there was something underneath that which warranted … I don’t know, an idealism that supposedly doesn’t exist anymore, and I don’t know … Bond represents State-sanctioned grandstanding violence?

    There is a lot in this comment already, that should be unpacked as its own post. But I almost hesitated before reading Tempest even though I knew, deep down, I would read it. I am fascinated with how Moore has melded We’s One State with an almost weird British retro-futuristic universe, all pulpy and such. I do wonder what will happen next. And I actually … look forward to it. So there is my long ramble worth two cents.

    (Also, if we are going to accuse a comic of being a non-fiction essay in paneled disguise, I am really looking at you, Promethea, though I can see some … Facts in the Case of Providence to that regard. I just like the retroactive Lovecraftian world-rewriting in it, so I am just biased all around. Also, again, did you notice how even Tempest seems to be making fun of, in a somewhat … fond way, of the comics subculture? Yeah. Me too. Not like we haven’t heard him do that before. ;))

  2. I enjoyed this review and I had a similar reaction to the Black Dossier. I marvelled at the intricacy of the work that went into it, and I almost felt I didn’t have the capacity to properly appreciate it (despite being a Literature graduate). But, after the humour, fun (and horror) of the first two volumes, I just didn’t enjoy it. It was something of a chore to read and the plot was thin, compared with the supplementary material. The series has never won back my affection which is why I’m not overly excited about Tempest, but if it’s Alan Moore’s last work in the medium, it deserves my attention.

    However, one thing I take issue with in your piece, is the throwaway description of Providence. Together with Neonomicon, Providence is to me, the most enjoyable (and horrible) work from Moore since LOEG volume 2 (or perhaps, since Smax). I knew little of Lovecraft beforehand and while I know a bit more now, and understand some of his literary intentions, the comic worked as a wonderful, horrifying story, for me (with excellent art to boot).

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