Comics nowadays are occupied with our modern idea of the superhero, that of capes, cowls, colourful skimpy tights, and strong resemblances to late-night exercise equipment spokespersons with gland disorders.
However, these archetypes can be traced back to a long time before the emergence of superman: that of the pulp novel. Though we hardly recognize them as "superheroes", there can be no doubt that the likes of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Dr. Syn and so on are iconic figures of justice in the fight against evil. From this alone, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill came up with the conceit to create a team of superheroes of the late 19th century, during Queen Victoria's reign in England. The result is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with characters indiscriminately lifted from various avenues, ranging from pulp penny dreadfuls and pornographic literature to classic literature.
The first volume of the series was a critical and commercial success, which not only peaked people's interest in comics (or "graphic novels") again, but also got Moore and O'Neill a fat million-dollar movie adaptation deal. The eclectic League itself is comprised of Mina Murrary (Bram Stoker), Allan Quatermain (H. Rider Haggard), Nemo (Jules Verne), Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson), and Hawley Griffin/The Invisible Man (H.G. Wells). In the first volume, the story centres on Mina having to gather a team of "extraordinary people" to serve as special agents for the Crown, with their first mission involving Dr. Fu Manchu, sky battleships and the mysterious "M" behind the scenes. With the story and art being already brilliant, readers also are in for the treat of the game of "Spot the Victorian Reference", with annotations - done chiefly by Jess Nevins - published both online and in book form, Heroes and Monsters: The Unofficial Companion to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Almost every single prop, backdrop or character in the background has some obscure Victorian literature reference, ranging from Edgar Rice Burrough sci-fi to soft pornographic pocket novels. While the comic itself was enjoyable enough, it also featured an ongoing story in written prose, "Allan and the Sundered Veil", with some loose ties to the comic story arc itself. In between these two are littered various Victorian era print advertisements, which could either be laughable ("Cigars deJoy for Asthma and Bronchitis"), horrifying ("Edison-Patented Electrical Negro"), or just pure delightful ("Turko Russian Folding Bath Cabinet").
Unfortunately, the public consensus of the movie adaptation - curiously marketed as LXG - is that the less said, the better. A mediocre effort which included American characters, what was a deep study in developing old public domain characters is truncated into an excuse for an action movie with less interaction, more fights. The two additions, Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray, had alterations done which were inconsistent with their literary roots, quite unlike Moore and O'Neill's expansion of the original League's characters. Their presence also jeopardized the character arcs from the original comic, causing more Hollywood clichéd roles such as Sawyer's father-figure relationship to Quatermain, who was more an opium sot than vigilant pre-Bond suave superhero. Mina - clearly the one most wronged in the adaptation - is turned from an independent "fallen woman" leading the team, into a not particularly interesting sole female member who has stereotypical vampiric abilities.
With such a dismal film, would the second volume of the original comic suffer from the same fate?
Many had feared this was the case, as the second volume (greatly hinted at the end of the first volume) directly borrows the setting of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" novel. As the original volume was an original story at its own right, would the second volume just thrust the League as superheroes joining in the fray as the army fight the downhill battle with the Martians?
Fortunately, this is not to be so. Instead of having an all-out alien invasion battle ala blockbuster movies ("Independence Day"), Moore uses the same idea presented by Orson Welles during his reading of the same novel: that of how the common man react to an alien invasion, which could promise impending doom. By the second issue it is already more or less confirmed that the League have no chance in taking the Martians down, and just like us normal human beings, the whole thing seems to be just too huge, too terrifying for them. In the first few issues the League is thus the witness of this terrible War, watching haplessly as the aliens lay siege upon the overconfident British army.
Rather than greatly altering the whole plot of the original novel, Moore takes the story into different directions, which not only fits well into WoTW but also offers Moore's own conclusion on how the War began, developed, and ended. As per usual of Moore's standards, the character development and interaction in this volume is remarkable. One of the main attractions of the LoEG series is how these old characters can be revived and developed on, while still staying true to the character of their original novels. The participation of the Invisible Man in the WotW storyline, though disturbing, is brilliantly written. Edward Hyde's character is given much more depth compared to the hulking brute depicted in the first volume, showing him to be still rather intelligent despite being more bestial in nature. At the same time, hidden feelings are revealed between certain members of the League. The story is definitely a great read from beginning to end.
The element of surprise is one of the many good qualities of the book, and it shows. Scenes include Allan and Mina searching for a doctor in the wilderness famed for dangerous experiments, Captain Nemo's Nautilus forcefully docked as the war rages on, and possibly the most infamous incident in LoEG II which happens between Edward Hyde and the Invisble Man. The many Victorian references of the first volume are not only present here, but doubled in size and volume (possibly Moore's attempt to murder Jess Nevins).
The prose story, a huge part of the first volume, is a Traveller's almanac written by the British Intelligence, with references to the travels around the world done by a previous League and part of the current one we all know. Similarly, the almanac is almost double the length of Allan and the Sundered Veil, with at least one Victorian literature reference featured in every single sentence. It also has a wider range of culture source references, where pop culture seeps in to Victorian literature (including Nemo's encoutering a particular Submarine with a distinctive colour). Though nearly a chore to go through this while double checking against Nevins' notes, the almanac is still a terrific read. Quite unlike the usual Lonely Planet's guide, the traveller's opinions of the places are featured, often contradicting to each other. There are also bits and pieces which hint on a sequel to Volume II, and the fate of the remainders of the current League after the horrifying events of the Martian attack.
There are quite a few extra features in this book. Other than the obligatory cover gallery, there is a board game with even more Victorian references in Moore's style of humour ("Mowgli mistakes you for Dr. Doolittle and talks to you in Rhino for 3 hours. Lose one turn.") Several features are reminiscent of the kind of little games you could find in old British comics for children, including colouring pages, a "Cautionary Fable" ala Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter, and a "saucy art postcard". Unfortunately the advertisements are only limited to one page, but with the excellent additions, there really isn't much to complain about.
Alan Moore has been one of the best writers in the industry since the 80's, and this intelligent, multi-layered volume is indeed a good show of his talent. This is the sort of graphic novel you would not mind picking up once and again, and each time you may be able to find something which did not catch your eye previously.
America's Best Comics
Publisher Website: www.dccomics.com/Wildstorm/
Jess Nevins' annotations: www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/7160/annos.html
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