To Blaze Forever

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Oh, this one tears me up. At times, it's writer Alan Moore's most purely entertaining book in years, despite being often deeply frustrating. It's a grand statement of Moore's cherished themes, amplified past the threshold of distraction. It boasts some of artist Kevin O'Neill's loveliest work ever, yet... well ok, there isn't much of a downside involving O'Neill. It's actually his contribution that levels the book out a bit more than otherwise would.

Let's start off with a few quick notes. If you're the type that finds Moore's various approximations of period writing styles to be cloying, whether via adorned prose, or his scripts for the fake old comics that tend to dot his sequential works - please, do not read this book. You may well take your own life, and I'd hate to have your blood on my hands, True Believer.

Also, it'd be a bad idea to expect a full-fledged League of Extraordinary Gentlemen opus from this book; there is a proper Vol. 3 coming up, and this is not it. Despite its 208-page length, this book's aim is less 'tell a ripping yarn' than 'tell about ripping yarns, with an enthusiastically tugging yarn doled out in the gaps.' I'm talking about structure, not so much theme.

Indeed, to longtime Moore readers, the thematic implications may not seem all that different than usual. After all, so many (but not all) of Moore's 'big' works -- Marvelman, Watchmen, From Hell, Promethea, Lost Girls -- are skillful arrangements of familiar characters, archetypes or historical personages, which act to tease out latent, novel aspects of cozy fictions, all while suggesting broad truths about our world's relationship with them. This operation, I think, is the source of Moore's disappointment with works like Batman: The Killing Joke. As he remarked in George Khoury's The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore (Pg. 123):

"That in terms of what I want from a book from my writing, yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged, and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn't really relate to the real world in any way."

Even the likes of Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? acted as a farewell to the old Super-tropes of yore, and a demonstration of how applying the slightest mote of onrushing superhero realism to those devices would result in bloody mayhem. Moore's run on Supreme was kinder, and more active, studying the old Superman devices as a means of reclaiming the goodness of the prime superhero from obsolescence. I doubt its influence on All Star Superman,which even borrows the structure of its first twelve issues, can be overstated, although Grant Morrison's transformative eye and willingness to soak himself in genre affection makes him the better man for the job (plus, he has all Frank Quitely all the time, while Moore had a handful of Rick Veitch pages flailing in a bog of Extreme, Maximum, and/or Awesome house art - no contest).

All of this leads us to the good League, and the present volume.

Really, LoEG might be the perfect platform for Moore's continued interest in how fictions relate to us, and indeed, how fictions are alive. In selecting fictional characters from popular literature, idealizing the oft-hidden traits of some, and facing them off against nightmares and echos of the real world's concerns, Moore matches up classic adventure with what such adventures say.

In Vol. 1, the League was assembled. What a great idea - a real literary Justice League! In which direction might their hitting go? Well, they're sent to fight off a typically wicked racial 'other,' although the real threat rose from within polite society. In the even-better Vol. 2, Moore delightfully spun around and smashed the League to the ground. You see, really the idea was a totally awful one, since a super-group of such diverse influences and powers couldn't possibly work together without immediately falling out killing one another, especially when faced with a grave threat. Fanciful science ideas are shown to carry the charge of modern destructive force. It's a short step from germs killing the Martians to germs tactically deployed on the field of battle.

But Moore's hope is always that the positive traits of popular literature will rise to the top, embodying our best impulses, and taking us closer to godliness.

That last notion is made bold text in this book, which I again caution you is not a proper third volume; it's a fancy resource book that explodes the premise into a very large story, summarizes a number of smaller stories the creative team are never going to get to otherwise, teases at full stories coming later (ooh, just like in World War Hulk!), and has a primary story going on between all the info dumps. Careful readers already know of the many Leagues throughout history - here, Moore places them against the backdrop of mighty cosmic tinkering with human affairs, in the hopes of bridging the gap between the mortal and the beyond. All aspects of the human condition are embodied in these fictions (since everyone in this series is someone, if you know what I mean), and their world's struggle is a struggle for our souls:

"Not thou alone, but all humanity doth in its progress fable emulate. Whence came thy rocket-ships and submarines if not from Nautilus, from Cavorite?

"Your trustiest companions since the cave, we apparitions guided mankind's tread, our planet, unseen counterpart to thine, as permanent, as ven'rable, as true.

"On dream's foundation matter's mudyards rest. Two sketching hands, each one the other draws: the fantasies thou've fashioned fashion thee."

So relates a plainspoken chap from the book's self-congratulatory finale, which is rendered in 3D, so the fictions can jump out from their Ideaspace headquarters with a special message for YOU.

On the way there, Wilhelmina Murray and Allan Quatermain, both now forever young, attempt to snatch the titular Dossier -- you bet your ass we get to read the whole thing -- from the clutches of rotten 1950s English political control, and spirit its League-centric contents off to safety. These walking ideals of old times are pursued by avatars of secret violence and Empire: Bulldog Drummond, young Emma Peel, and the horrible "Jimmy" Bond, who's got a brilliant metatextual scheme for self-preservation brewing.

There is little that is original about this book in terms of simple construction. It can best be compared to one of those Cerebus volumes that mixed comics and text, with the text acting as an item in the comics - Jaka's Story or Rick's Story, for example. Dave Sim would often present the prose as blasts of a particular character's (naturally biased) worldview, contrasted with the omniscience of the comics bits. Moore takes this approach and melds it with the pastiches of old comics and texts he uses in his other works - as such, the Black Dossier accounts for many viewpoints, many styles, and many fonts and paper stocks (credit to Todd Klein), all of it primed to provide a history of the imaginary world, all while Mina and Allan run away from things in modern comics style.

The problem is, Moore wants way too much. He wants to have a story, and he wants to dump lots of information. The latter wins handily.

I'm not saying the prose or vintage comics sections of this book are a slog; I'd estimate the stuff averages one good laugh every two or three pages. Hell, the insert Tijuana Bible may be the funniest thing Moore's written in forever, even though it lapses so far into parody that it loses credibility as a item from the LoTG world. Sadly, Moore's presentational ambition also runs headlong into publishing reality - references are made to a record that just ain't there, and you're given the option to cut open naughty pages that are already well-trimmed, thank you. Perhaps you can take the knife to the Absolute Edition?

Also fine is an extra-smutty Fanny Hill sequence that emphasizes the League as one of Extraordinary Fucking, and a marvelous mash-up of Wodehouse's Jeeves and Lovecraft's Cthulhu. I even got a horselaugh out of Moore's berserk approximation of 'beat' writing, if only because I couldn't believe it was actually included (I recommend reading it aloud). All of these little segments also act to fill in the details of what the various Leagues have done throughout the years, and there's some obsessive joy of cataloging to be had.

The 'main' comics bits fare a good deal worse. It's as if being forced to co-exist with these historical supplements has had a bad influence, since many of these pages are choked with trivia; an early sequence, seeing Mina and Allan unwind in an apartment, is almost shockingly clumsy in its tumbling, clattering din of minutiae. Earlier LoEG books, perhaps by virtue of being official chapters in a story, were able to balance the easter eggs with character work and smooth storytelling; here, Moore's drama is sadly inert, despite being loaded with chases and escapes, in that it must stumble across sticky waves of allusion.

Luckily, Moore has Kevin O'Neill (and colorist Ben Dimagmaliw) to better distinguish the pieces. Just as Moore adopts many voices yet remains himself, O'Neill takes on a variety of illustrative forms across the many segments, giving '50s kids comics and Elizabethan margin drawings some unified distinction. But he's also adept at calming himself as the scene switches back to Mina and Allan, snapping away from period pomp to period grit. As always, his sense for just the right amout of detail is keen, tossing in some extra shadows and wide-brimmed hats to bring out the omnious mood of subterfuge. He also really hits on the dank and lived-in environs of '50s England, subtly conveying the coarseness of modernity as fictions grow crueler.

You can make this out from Moore's mélange too - note how the Leagues collapse more rapidly and attract more dangerous sorts the closer we get to our present. Clearly someone feels humanity's imagination is on the wrong path, which bodes ill for an upcoming 2008 setting. But for the first time in this series, Moore's characters seem like little more than intellectual game pieces to be moved around. At least Mina and Allan have the last two books to feed off of in terms of character; little is done with them here beyond a few affectionate snuggles, and their travails could be those of any blank, vaguely old-timey characters.

Of the new crew, only Moore's Bulldog Drummond registers as a lively, fully-formed character, a bigoted, reactionary bastard that nevertheless carries a deep reservoir of respect for friends and kin, and can be moved to anger against the cunning and thrillseeking nihilism that's poised to usurp his own sense of two-fisted honor in a nation's dashing heroism. There is also some power to Moore's Orlando, that multi-sexual immortal, whose masculine side finds itself more and more addicted to warfare as a recurring thrillpoint in human history, counterbalancing the oceanic sensuality of his feminine aspect. A clever extension of Lost Girls' thrust, but Moore seems content to merely suggest it for now. Maybe in League 3?

Yeah, it does get you a little excited as a preview. A $30 one. It occurs to me that Moore might have been better off keeping this project scaled back to an Official Guide sort of thing. I very much liked the pure treatise of that last issue of Promethea, after all, where story was of no concern. But here, Moore wants it all, and he can't quite grab it. His studious impulse sends his storytelling reeling, and while I like to study too, I also think a saga of sagas-as-humans embodying the human saga ought be more human than this. Moore has long ago taught me the things I should expect from words and pictures.