Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

It’s 1958. The Big Brother government (from 1984) has recently collapsed. A young James Bond is tricked by the long-lived Mina Harper and Allan Quatermain, leading to a chase involving Bulldog Drummond, Emma Peel and Harry Lime. They travel through an England where faeries were run out in the 17th century and now a functioning spaceport is a tourist attraction. The title’s black dossier describes exploits of some earlier Leagues as well as a French and German counterpart.

Almost exactly a year after its original publication date, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier makes its appearance. Typically Moore blames the folk at DC for the delay and unspecified behind-the-scenes shenanigans (clearly including the omission of the much anticipated 45rpm record that’s even mentioned in the text as being present) though by now I tend to think this stuff is as real as that snake god he’d like us to believe he worships.

Whatever the case, Black Dossier wasn’t entirely worth the wait. Oh, it’s loads of fun and more imaginative than most current comics/novels/TV/take-your-pick but far too much is just thrown together and feels like background material that should have been left back. A somewhat lengthy text piece tries to tie Lovecraftian gods to other forms of mythology, something that seemed cliched decades ago and is no more complex in the dossier telling than in my single sentence here. A faux-Shakespeare play is easily the weakest thing in the book since it seems almost as if Moore has never encountered anything Elizabethan, though a nearly unreadable Burroughs (W.S. not E.R.) pastiche is perhaps as bad. Maybe imitations are not Moore’s strength though I think this lapse is a bit broader in that he’s not really comfortable enough in straight prose to sustain such writing for any length. I suspect he would be a top-notch playwright or scriptwriter if he didn't enjoy complaining about the business folk in such businesses.

It also occurred to me that Moore is basically a re-writer in that nearly all his major and most minor work is him revising something that already exists: Swamp Thing, Miracle/Marvelman, Watchmen, From Hell, LOEG, Lost Girls. Even Top 10, Promethea, the ABC books and the various superhero stories draw from a pool of shared material much as folk and blues songs do. Certainly this shouldn’t be pushed too far--Watchmen for instance owes pretty much nothing to the Charlton originals and of course there’s always V for Vendetta and other odds ‘n’ sods that sprang (or occasionally crawled) from his brow.

Black Dossier is structured as that basic chase story with the contents of the diegetic dossier strewen throughout. As mentioned, some of this is more labored than interesting (or even well done) and it’s disappointing that Moore didn’t take at least one technique from Conan Doyle and fill the text with passing references to adventures or characters that we don’t otherwise know about. Yes, there are some new stories here but the long history of Orlando is almost more connect-the-dots in the worst manner of the back-up material to LOEG 2. In other words, each piece should either stand on its own more effectively or create a mosaic rather than simply elaborating something we already know. And it’s odd that we’re expected to take all the dossier contents more or less at face value – Moore is a big Sopranos fan so couldn’t he have learned the dramatic value of deceptive characters?

This time there’s a lot more British pop culture than before and without Jess Nevin’s annotations I would have gotten very little of it (even including Emma Peel’s identification). Most spectacularly a character who appears towards the end that I think most Americans will have the same stupefied, mindboggled reaction that I did, though apparently nearly all Brits will know exactly who this is. (Yes, I’m being deliberately vague.) Not a complaint but it does create an interesting feel, almost like I'm missing a joke which I suppose is exactly what's happening. There are also a few echoes of Lost Girls as if Moore had some aftershocks and I can’t help but think that a lot of the references are shoved in there just to have a reference. Admittedly that’s part of the appeal but at one point he draws from a book that if Nevins has IDed it right seems to have never been translated into English and there’s a lot of similar obscurities that you think he’s just combing reference works for this stuff.

So while I will re-read the original LOEG (and own the Absolute edition) and just the story but not backing material of LOEG 2, Black Dossier is not something worth returning to.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Black Dossier annotations

Jess Nevins has again done indispensable annotations for the new LOEG book Black Dossier. Below are my own suggestions & additions:

P12, panel 3 – Probably coincidence but there’s a 1950 film called Odette about a female spy.

P12, panel 7 – Perhaps the statue being taken down is Churchill? Might be worth noting for some Americans that the guy with the raised fingers isn’t flashing a victory sign but the British equivalent of giving somebody the finger. Perhaps at the Giles Grandmother?

P13, panel 1 – Maybe “anti-sex league” also refers to Amis’ Anti-Death League?

P16, panel 8 – My first thought of “-ipley” was Ripley’s Believe It or Not though that doesn’t seem to have any obvious connection. Maybe Titus Cobbett also refers to Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow? And of course real-world writer William Cobbett (Rural Rides) would be likely to have written on “inland revenue”.

Panel 9 – “Atrocity pamphlet” might also refer to the propaganda practice of creating atrocity stories involving the enemy. My first thought for “Harry Blake” was the character Harry Palmer but can’t see any reason for the name change. It’s a long-shot but “Harry Blake” might refer to a work of what seems to be fanfic by Robert Douglas at http://www.alternatehistory.com/gateway/contributions/Kaliscount.html. It refers to a Harold Blake who discovers a “magical substance”. For the stylized letter on the folder if you turn it upside down it resembles a pound sign. I wondered if the folder at the bottom was supposed to say “spy cars” but “-oy cars” makes more sense since everything else is upper-case. Note that the black dossier Allan is holding is like our real-world book without the dust jacket.

P20 – Is it just me or does the landlady resemble Judy from Punch & fame?

P21 – Not sure about Prof Donnol either but “donnol” is an anagram for London. “Lifting you on wings of song” – On Wings of Song is a Thomas Disch novel.

P23 – Note Mina’s comment that Bond “wasn’t very tanned” for having visited Jamaica.

P24 – Gloriana replaces Elizabeth in LOEG and then Jacob for James I.

P29 – Kevin O’Neill was born in 1953, maybe August 22 is his birthday? I can’t find a reference. Moore was same year but November. // The film director is more likely to be De Mille. See photos at http://www.classicmoviefavorites.com/demille/awards.html and with Krazy Kat at http://i8.photobucket.com/albums/a44/moxievision/fairbanks-demille-felix.jpg.

P30 – The robot with 1937 is on its chest seems to be taunting us. There was a 1937 Donald Duck cartoon with a robot and that year also a Li’l Abner strip but none resemble this one. There was also a real-world robot called Elektro which also has no resemblence. // It may be important considering Orlando’s history that Tiresias was given the forced sex change because he intervened in an argument between Hera and Zeus about whether men or women have the most pleasure from sex.

P33 – Some of these events are also described in the Aeneid which is also a founding story for Rome.

P35 – That image in your annotations will certainly have some familiarity to viewers of anime. // Romulus supposedly founded Rome in 753 BC and that’s when Romans dated their calendar (or at least part of it anyway).

P37 – The real-world followers of Spartacus were crucified by the thousands along the Appian Way, however not including Spartacus himself who seems to have been killed in battle.

P38 – “charlatan snake cultist” could be a reference to Moore himself. Though it doesn’t mean anything Heliogabalus is mentioned in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Modern Major General”.

P47, panel 1 – Note the jet plane in the background.

P49 – Faerie’s Fortunes Founded echoes Love’s Labour Lost which had a perhaps apocryphals sequel Love’s Labour Won (scholars disagree over whether it’s a lost play, an alternate title for another play or just a mistake). Don’t know if it means anything but this is dated three years before the actual First Folio (1620 before 1623). I don’t think there were any illustrations in the First Folio or indeed of folio or quarto editions of the time but could be wrong.

P52 top – Lots of puns about maleness (orchid having derived from the Greek word for testicle). Mistaken identities are also common in Shakespeare – The Comedy of Errors is pretty much completely built of that.

P83 panel 3 – Is “Larkin” on the building a reference to Philip Larkin? Can’t think of any reason that would be so.

P88 – Doctor Carrot seems more likely but I couldn’t help but wonder if this may be Flaming Carrot.

P90 – The license plate 0211731 might be the date November 2, 1973 (or in American order February 11) with an extra digit but I can’t connect that to anything. The initial zero might actually be a “D” but that doesn’t help either. You think it must mean something because it’s such an odd thing to have there (unless British cycles are different?).

P93 – Could “Secret of Paris” refer to Sue’s Mysteries of Paris? For “Joycamp Harlots” the band Joy Division took their name from what was supposedly the prostitution section of concentration camps during WW2. I’ve never found any reference to support that and think it’s probably something they saw in passing. Do you think the magazine right in front of Allan is called “Antichrist”? “John Bull” of course is the British equivalent of Uncle Sam.

P93 panel 4 – The door has 23 which is supposedly a mystical number in some forms of magic(k).

P96 – In boxes at bottom left note box on furthest right has a “23” in Roman numerals. 1666 was the date of The Blazing World but also of the Great Fire in London.

P104 – Maybe too obvious to point out but the cutaway of the Nautilus is a tip of the hat to all the similar ones in Silver Age comics where you could see plans for the Batmobile or Fortress of Solitude.

P113 – The figure in top hat probably is Caligari but might also be combined with Svengali from the du Maurier novel Trilby. See for instance http://hubpages.com/u/104524_f260.jpg but some images of the Barrymore version also show him with white gloves.

P115 – There are similarities to Graveyard of Unwritten Books in the novels of Jasper Fforde and to some degree in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind (though the latter makes little use of it).

P151 – “Vanness Avenue” is Van Ness Ave in SF. “descend into Maya” – Maya is the Buddhist term for this material world (if I have that right).

P155 – Ginsberg recorded an album of Blake poems.

P169 – Did anybody point out that Black Dossier is set in 1958, same year that the novel Dr. No came out?

P179, panel 1 – At the bottom on the ramp is a Cthulhu-looking character. Also a mermaid to the left.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Not finishing books

Once upon a time I finished every book I started. Can't remember now if there was any particular reason for this other than I had a lot of time and only chose books that seemed interesting in some way. Which seems kinda obvious but one benefit of true nerd-dom is a lack of peer pressure to keep up with whatever you "should" be doing. (And of course is why I hit college with a phenomenal amount of SF and fantasy under my belt but not much in the way of classics or mainstream reading, a situation that's pretty much reversed in the couple of decades since then.) Though I'm sure somewhere there must have been books long forgotten that I never finished the first I remember deliberately giving up was Huxley's Point Counterpoint which was assigned for a class when I was a college sophmore or junior. Though I think it's something I might like now, at the time it seemed turgid and pointless so I dug up some reviews and critical pieces, synthesized that into my own paper and got a "B" for it.

The reason this comes up is that I just gave up on Carlo Emilio Gadda's That Awful Mess on Via Merulana after making it about 80 pages (of nearly 400). This sounded like My Kind of Book: a philosophical mystery compared to Joyce with lots of local color and obscure references. I'm a sucker for mysteries with that high-brow art attitude: Eco, Auster, early Peter Dickinson, even Chesterton. And that description of Awful Mess is more or less true except that I didn't get to much philosophy. One problem is that all the characters blurred together even though I stopped and actually started over which sorted some of them out but now they seemed like pretty much just names (perhaps more proto-Barthesean than it should have been). And though the multiplicity-of-voices approach does seem promising in practice it was just too much work reading for very little payoff. So I didn't stop reading because it's "bad"--for all I know another 30 pages and it would all click into place--but because I realized it wasn't entertaining/interesting ("entertaining" being the lowbrow and "interesting" the middlebrow words for the same thing) enough to give up that time when something else could be in its place, and because I'm not gaining anything by finishing it.

This past summer I similarly gave up on W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South for somewhat the same reasons. This is a book I'd wanted to read for years and finally in one of those inexplicable moments took it out of the library and started. This one was even more clear cut because as pure writing it was neither here nor there so it came down to what did I hope to gain by finishing it? All Cash's talk of Cavaliers and hill folk was removed from any kind of reality I've seen in 40+ years as a Southerner or could even match in any meaningful way to even more imaginative discourses so in the end it seemed like all I would learn is a piece in the story of how the South has been perceived and even created as a conceptual category. Which, really, I don't much care about.