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.