A unified field theory of fiction
By Mat Colegate.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol III): Century #1 (“1910”) by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Top Shelf 2009
You should never feel trepidatious about opening an Alan Moore comic, you are always in the safest of hands. Whether it’s the Quabalic ponderings of Promethea, the flat-foot comedy of Top 10 or the dysmorphic, hallucinogenic sloppiness of D.R. and Quinch (Y’see? Y’see how I didn’t mention Watchmen?) Moore’s (and the reader’s) greatest gift is that, for all his detours and occasional over-seriousness, his classical pretensions and almost maniacal obsession with structure, he is basically a fabulous entertainer, capable of swinging from comedy to pathos within a panel break and always keeping the reader riveted. That’s why he is The Great Comic Magus and also why I’m a bit disappointed with 1910.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is Uncle Alan’s stated attempt to present a unified field theory of fiction. Here’s a potted history for all of you as yet unfamiliar. In the League‘s world all of the great fictional personages of the turn of the century, Nemo and Mr Hyde, Wilhelmina Murray and Allan Quatermain, are alive and rubbing shoulders with other great and lesser known characters. There have been walk-ons from Sherlock Holmes, his nemesis Moriarty, Captain Ishmael and a host of other luminaries of the stiff-lipped ripping yarns of yore. The League have faced Sky-piracy, Martian invasion and, in the updated version contained within 2007’s The Black Dossier, a brilliantly savage deconstruction of a certain ultra-misogynist English secret agent. Basically adventure comics, the League’s escapades have contained some of Moore’s most straightforwardly enjoyable work yet.
Interesting characters from fictions past, such as Raffles Gentleman Thief and Carnacki the Ghost-finder, are introduced briefly and effectively in 1910, although, what with the promised next installment being set in 1969, somewhat unsatisfyingly. I mean, half-a-century later something tells me that ol’ A.J. Raffles may be somewhat past his prime (although, without wishing to spoil anything, it should be pointed out that the passing of time is less of a problem for other League members).
In recent interviews Moore has been saying how his move from ABC, (a company for whom he basically wrote an entire line before it was sold to DC Comics, his bad-warlock style nemesis) to Top Shelf has freed him and O’Neill from the demands that 24 page issues make on the storyteller: namely that they should move at breakneck speed, with all the pace of the ‘boy’s adventure’ comic. Evidence of this is all over 1910. It’s considerably darker than its predecessors and a fair bit slower as well. However the page count (at 80 pages it’s somewhere between a single issue comic and what would normally pass for a graphic novel) means that by the time it all starts hotting up, with a stunningly rendered warship attack on London’s docklands, it’s pretty much over, leaving a feeling of dissatisfaction I’ve never encountered with a Moore comic before.
The problem, I think, is this: that Boy’s Own pacing that the first three volumes of League demonstrated with such flair are what I liked about them. They were adult updates of classic ripping yarns, able to incorporate ultra-violence and epic nastiness, as well as themes of racism and queer theory that still never detracted from the fact that you were having your plus-fours entertained into a heap round your ankles. However while a move away from the pacing and structure of the previous three volumes seems a teensy bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, what Moore has chosen to replace it with seems like a serious error of judgment.
Fans of The Great Mage’s previous work will know that Moore is rather fond of musical interludes. There’s an entire episode of his political sci-fi epic, V for Vendetta done through song for example, and numerous little routines and skits that appear throughout his oeuvre. All well and good, but for 1910 Moore has approached for raw material something a little more overt and has borrowed tunes (and characters) from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera. While on the surface this might seem like a good fit, it was produced in roughly the same time frame and is meaty and dark enough to go with the new League‘s shift of tone, in practice it draws a bit of a blank.
It shouldn’t need pointing out that the comic is not the most musical of mediums (‘KABLOOM’ may be a satisfying representation of The Sentry chucking Hulk through the Baxter Building, but one would imagine it could only be seen as musical by a stone-deaf, slightly desperate, Wolf Eyes fan), therefore to have characters suddenly bursting into song mid-story gives a rather distancing jolt to the reader. No clues are given as to which of Brecht and Weill’s ditties are being presented and the result is seriously (and somewhat Brechtianly) alienating. Obviously my lack of familiarity with one of the most famous pieces of theatre of the 20th Century is a stumbling block but, hey whatever, ‘Mack the Knife’ is in there and I know that well enough, and the result is still the same. It feels like an experiment too far and adds to the feeling that 1910 is a little, well, unsatisfying.
I should point out at this point that Kevin O’Neill’s artwork on this bad boy is incredible. From his character work in the numerous crowd scenes, too some of his most lovingly fetishised gore since his work on Marshall Law. His ability to pair grotesquery with genuine tenderness, often in a single panel, is one of his calling cards, and what makes him a logical successor to Hogarth. It should also be pointed out that Ben Dimagmaliw’s colours are a perfect fit and that their Folies Bergere style ending, all high-kicking dancing girls and tangoing sailors, almost makes the whole musical experiment worthwhile.
Of course, what unsticks all of this fanboy griping and moaning is that 1910 is the first part of a trilogy, so for me to bleat on about it being ‘unsatisfying’ is a little pointless. I mean, it’s not finished yet, is it? However if the promised next installment is to be set in 1969, a full half century later, then how much continuation can there reasonably be? Why set up all the playing pieces only to have the sands of time blow them away? Uncle Alan, what have you done to your loyal servant? Oh, hang about, that means I’m hooked, doesn’t it? And it’s true, I am. All I’m concerned about is that 1969 is going to be the only Alan Moore comic I’ve ever approached with that aforementioned sense of trepedition, and to this loyal fan that seems like a shame. Might the Great Comic Mage’s spell finally be broken? Let’s wait and see, shall we?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mat Colegate is 3:AM Magazine‘s Comics Editor. He is a magician and poet who lives and works in London. His writing has been featured in the blogs Mindless Ones and 20 Jazz Funk Greats. His first collection of poetry Black Triangle Scrapings will be published later this year.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 19th, 2009.