Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century #1 (of 3): 1910

God, I'd forgotten this was almost done.

Not quite done, mind you; the version I've read is b&w -- not toned or printed in b&w, I mean inked pages still awaiting color -- and missing the obligatory text feature, part one of a New Wave science fiction pastiche, which ought to look interesting next to Chris Ware's somewhat similarly-toned piece in the most recent ACME Novelty Library. It'll be 80 perfect bound color pages when it's ready, priced at $7.95 by Top Shelf/Knockabout. I don't exactly know when 'ready' is; April looks like the general idea, but I suspect the answer wants to be 'as soon after the Watchmen movie as possible.'

This puts me in sort of a tricky position, first and foremost because I obviously can't discuss the art very much; it's simply not finished as intended for publication. As luck would have it, though, Kevin O'Neill happens to be maybe the most reliable stylist in semi-mainstream comics today, so it's probably safe to just say it looks like he's done his usual splendid job, barring catastrophic coloring/production errors.

Of course, then there's the problem of reviewing a comic that nobody is going to read for maybe two or so months, particularly when that comic sort of demands a certain amount of detailed study; any close reading is likely to prompt confusion (moreso than usually found on this site), aside from those readers who just aren't going to want to know anything in advance. Honestly? This might be a slightly better comic if you go in blind - I'll just note that it's better than Black Dossier but maybe not what you think, and leave it at that.

Aaah, but I just can't resist a good opportunity to pollute the collective anticipation. It's why I was put on this Earth. Let me tell you a few things.

Century is the third 'full' volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; it'll be the longest of the series' segments and, according to writer Alan Moore, the darkest. But its composition is three separate stories, each one standing alone in wildly different eras, yet adding up to a grander thing - it makes sense, then, to evaluate this 1910 chapter as its own small sequel in the ongoing LoEG saga.

It holds up well. Freed from the laborious give-and-take of comics and faux-historical multimedia that tired out Black Dossier, 1910 returns to the adventure team irreverence that powered vol. 2 of the series. And I mean irreverence toward adventure teams - if LoEG vol. 1 was all about how impossibly awesome an idea it is to throw various fantastic Victorian literary characters together into a big adventure, and vol. 2 was about how it's actually a completely horrible idea since everyone would kill each other, 1910 looks to what happens when the idea outlasts its utility to its times.

Anyone expecting hard-hitting public domain thrills in here is bound to be disappointed; Mina Murray and Alan Quatermain may have joined up with ghost finder Thomas Carnacki, gentleman thief A.J. Raffles and the immortal, gender shifting Orlando for a new Edwardian era League, but Moore portrays them as singularly inefficient, prone to squabbling and gossip, and largely shit at solving mysteries, which proves troublesome when Carnacki starts having visions of mayhem during the coronation of George V.

It's a very deliberate deflation of expectations, right down to the team's B-plot-at-best engagement with an apocalyptic plot masterminded by obscure W. Somerset Maugham villain Oliver Haddo, a parody of Aleister Crowley; it almost goes without saying that Moore seizes the moment to populate Haddo's entourage with fictional creations of the actual, prolific Crowley, while steeping the diabolist's scheme in arcana from Crowley's 1917 novel Moonchild. But while one imagines it'll all prove more suitably threatening in future issues, here it's only another means of baffling Our Heroes with omens they can't cope with. It's not a triumphant teamwork kinda comic.

No, what it is, specifically, as you've probably guessed by now, is an extended homage to The Threepenny Opera -- that epic theatre classic by Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill (not to confused with Moore's old pen name, Curt Vile!) -- ensconcing a blazin' color pop comics crypto-remake of Moore's own From Hell (abridged).

Really! Jack the Ripper is a prominent presence in this episode, now a charismatic anti-hero in the Mr. Hyde mold; Moore even sees fit to swap out the Eddie Campbell collaboration's minute research and historical detail with references to brash, popular Ripper fiction, most prominently Peter Medak's 1972 film The Ruling Class -- an old favorite of mine, based on a Peter Barnes play and boasting Peter O'Toole's greatest performance, which also informed one of Grant Morrison's early Doom Patrol stories, the Red Jack adventure of issues #23-24 -- and G.W. Pabst's 1928 silent Pandora's Box, which all you film scholars know was completed only three years prior to Pabst's early sound era adaptation of... The Threepenny Opera.

And the cleverness hardly ends there. I'll estimate that about 1/6 of the text in this comic is actually song, sometimes-extensive reworkings of The Ballad of Mack the Knife, Pirate Jenny, Epitaph and Second Threepenny Finale (aka: What Keeps Mankind Alive?), all 'performed' by or about the likes of Macheath, Suki(e) Tawdry and Jenny Diver via word balloons with musical notes around them in the old-school manner of Bojeffries or certain bits of Tomorrow Stories.

But while it's surely very clever, I can't say it's all that witty or meaningful; several of these characters have added connections to established bits of the LoEG universe, and Moore's modifications to their classic numbers mainly serve to shore up these amended character aspects, or push especially hard at, say, the sexual violence marking a working woman's world at that time (Extraordinary as it may be). Moore also assumes you know your Threepenny, and that you're capable of matching up the mood of a particular tune with his necessarily soundless verse; it could be that O'Neill's art can take over the burden of mood for less acclimated readers, but I wonder if they'll take all this singing as one fancy too many, slowing the affair down (maybe they should have included a record with this one).

I also wonder, relatedly, if Moore doesn't lean a bit much on the reader's pre-established familiarity with his various appropriated characters, to the point where their arcs carry unintended implications on the page. I know I was excited to see more of Moore's gender-switching Orlando, set up in Black Dossier as torn between the sensuality of his feminine nature and the warlike thrill seeking of his masculine side; a little pat in the dichotomy, but sure. Unfortunately, the Orlando glimpsed in this comic is always male, and little more than a chatty, sashaying fop who -- surprise!! -- turns out to be hell in a fight at the end.

It's remarkably close to stereotype, and even then only one part of a generally tee-heeing approach to male homosexuality that chafes against Moore's oft-voiced yen for social justice and liberated eros. I eventually got to the point where I wondered if Moore deliberately omitted mentioning the averred gay subtext of Raffles' character (perhaps so the League wouldn't seem too gay) or just expected us all to know that already, and thus left it unstated amidst complaints of Orlando being a "he-she."

Also unstated is the Marxist aspect of Brecht's & Weill's work, which will no doubt irritate some, though Moore has never been interested in the specifics of politics in LoEG so much as the broad implications of narratives among humans-as-narratives.

The Threepenny's cast of beggars and killers were set in contrast to the 'proper' crimes of the upper class, revealing the corruption of those above, yes, but also reminding us that Macheath and company are capitalists too, basking in the true slime of a system stripped of finery. In contrast, Moore's focus is on violence, flattening the plane of wickedness so that a Jack the Ripper can really know the streets (no doctor, this one), and brutal threats can come from the seemingly helpless, rather than the rarefied plane of mad masterminds or underworld lords or space monsters or elite clubs of magic.

Such is the key to the League's failure in 1910. They're 'heroes' that think like heroes from a passing time, sitting around in lavish costumes in a headquarters no doubt financed by a ruling government, all lazy and monied and inattentive. Of course they never understand the threat - the coronation isn't just another Threepenny reference, it's a changing of times toward new systems, newer and meaner fictions and more wicked adventures. All who read the Black Dossier know that the League shifts to meet this challenge, going underground and tapping into a mystic union of Good fiction, unmooring themselves from the awful world.

Here, they're still part of the cracking landscape; if this is the 'dark' LoEG, it's because our eyes are away from the blazing horizon and fixed on the docks and the roads, where cruelty becomes equalized and fiction begins getting Bad. Put that way, even coming from Moore, it's a curiously conservative rendition of that old tune: The Birth of the 20th Century.