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Books: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Our modern idea of the cape, cowl & tights superhero is often traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman. There were plenty of "superheroes" before then, of course, but we didn't recognize them as such: Zorro, Gilgamesh, Hercules, etc. But clever, clever Alan Moore has rounded up a bunch of these pre-Superman fictitious heroes and given them their own comic book entitled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; the first six issues of said series (which constitute a complete story) have now been compiled into a trade paperback, which I read over the weekend.

And what a great read it was. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen begins in 1898 (one century prior to the comic book's publication), and the "heroes" are taken from the literature of the time: the swashbuckling Allan Quatermain, the mysterious Mina Murry, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, and both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (If some of those names fail to ring a bell, don't worry: half the fun of the story is discovering who each person is as the tale progresses.) The five are recruited by Campion Bond, agent of English Intelligence and emissary of a cryptic figure known as "M", who has assembled the team to save Britain from a threat as dangerous as it is enigmatic. And so begins a series of adventures which brings the team into contact with Auguste Dupin, Fu Manchu, and a host of other characters throughout the Europe of the late nineteenth century.

The wonderful thing about the heroes in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is that few of them are heroes, and most don't even qualify as "gentlemen". Quatermain is an opium fiend; Mr. Hyde is a (literal) monster; Hawley Griffin is, frankly, an asshole. They act not for love of England (Nemo, in fact, loathes the Empire and all it stands for), but for private motives and personal gain. In other words, the characters in the comic books are every bit as complex and interesting as the literary figures they are based on. Furthermore, the story told in the first six issues is what would have been called a "ripping good yarn" at the time, full of humor, drama, and more twists than the Thames river.

I have quite a few graphic novels and trade paperbacks on my bookshelf, but most date back to the era when I was an avid comic book reader: The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunter and the like. In the last ten years I have picked up a few more, but it's been rare to find one as good as the Silver Age classics (although a few have qualified, such as Kingdom Come and the Astro City compilations). And none that i have acquired in recent memory have risen to the level of The Watchmen and V For Vendetta, my two favorites. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, however, now joins their ranks, giving Alan Moore a hat trick as he sweeps my top three. If you are a comics fan -- or even if you once were and want to re-experience the thrill you used to feel when reading a first-rate series -- this is one to pick up.

Postscript 1: Quick! If you're gonna read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, do so now, before the movie comes out and fucks it up!

Postscript 2: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is only one of a number of new series that Moore is writing for America's Best Comics, and I have read the trade paperbacks for a few of the others. Although none were as marvelous as League, I would still recommend Tom Strong, which is something of a homage to the golden age of Superman. I wasn't gaga over either Top Ten or Promethea, though.

Posted on April 09, 2003 to Books





Comments

Speaking of comics, have you seen any of Chris Ware's stuff, and if not, what on earth is stopping you?

Posted by: Jimmy Corrigan on April 9, 2003 12:18 PM

I've always thought that V for Vendetta would make an awesome rock opera.

Posted by: evil666tim on April 9, 2003 2:37 PM

That's weird, because I've always thought that "Tommy" would make a bloody awful comic.

Posted by: Fred on April 9, 2003 3:41 PM

I highly recommend heading over to ye olde Geocities for an exhaustive set of LoEG annotations, if you haven't already:

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/7160/league1.html

Evidently it's about to be published as a book..? Anyway, it goes panel by panel, digging up the millions of references that are tucked away, plus other bonus info. Sort of like what Alan Moore did for himself in the From Hell book.

Posted by: josh on April 9, 2003 3:41 PM

Also speaking of comics, I highly recommend the TransMetropolitan series for smart good stuff. Oh, and a smoking two headed cat, which is good too.

Posted by: eucryphia on April 9, 2003 3:49 PM

Is that a typo on Amazon? Is it REALLY $149?

Posted by: Chris on April 9, 2003 4:35 PM

Ya gotta help me, I've got the rest down but Mina Murray? Is she ever mentioned in Bram Stoker's Dracula? I've started the second series but it's stalled on book four, may just have to plunk down the coin and grab the compiled first series.
BTW, thoughts on Dark Knight Returns 2?

Posted by: Daejin on April 9, 2003 4:54 PM

You didn't like Top Ten? Man, Top Ten is down.

The other great Alan Moore comic you didn't list is From Hell. That's definitely my favorite of his. It's best if you pretend the movie was never made.

Posted by: Hildago on April 9, 2003 6:44 PM

Ms. Mina Murray was at one point Mrs. Wilhelmina Harker, if that helps.

Posted by: Mercurian on April 9, 2003 8:44 PM

yeah, top ten is awesome! then promethea, and since i'm ranking, i'd put tom strong and LXG three and four; tomorrow stories doesn't rate :D so i guess what i'm saying is i'm looking forward to the movie! i think! or at least a revival of top ten, which doesn't look like it's gonna happen :(

also, btw, if you like gene ha's artwork i'd heartily recommend the adventures of cyclops and phoenix :D heartily

Posted by: kenny on April 10, 2003 5:51 AM

also, about your cat! that must give you prophylactic fits :D

Posted by: kenny on April 10, 2003 6:03 AM

Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing has been published as a series of trade paperbacks, and might be the best stuff he's done.

Peter Milligan's run on X-Force (now X-Statix) has been published as trade paperbacks; the 2 X-Force TPBs are now one hardcover. I generally don't care for X-stuff but these are extraordinary: the X-Men reimagined as a reality-TV-show/merchandising gimmick; very dark, very funny.

Posted by: alkali on April 10, 2003 6:58 AM

I consider Dark Knight Returns to be one of the finest comics I have ever read, but I admittedly haven't read some of the classics you mention like Watchmen.

Posted by: Mike on April 10, 2003 8:56 AM

Alan Moore's run on MIRACLEMAN was super amazingly awesome too:

http://www.disappearhere.org/_marvelman/

oh, and if you really haven't read FROM HELL - go out and get it IMMEDIATELY!

Posted by: charity on April 10, 2003 9:15 AM

supposedly tho he cribbed a lot of it from robert mayer's SUPERFOLKS :D

http://www.barbelith.com/underground/topic.php?id=11433#post204015

still amazing tho!

Posted by: kenny on April 10, 2003 10:18 AM

Ok, I bought the LoEG today, gonna read it tonite. It better not suck! ;)

Posted by: BillB on April 10, 2003 12:29 PM

An odd little indie worth checking out is Finder. You can read a couple of entire issues online for free at the publisher's website.

Full disclosure, the artist/writer is an old, dear friend. But honestly, this book is amazing.

Posted by: John Voorhees on April 10, 2003 6:29 PM

Matt, you might want to think about checking out some non-DC/Marvel work (and I say this as a fan of a number of the Spandex-tights books). Concrete is an excellent superhero comic, but I'm thinking more about things like Brian Michael Bendis' noir stuff or the wonderful, Tarantino-fried Stray Bullets or Jason Lutes' historical comic, Berlin: City of Stones. I wouldn't say Ware's stuff other than Jimmy Corrigan features characters as such, but he's a genius of some kind and it's worth reading (though not if you're depressed).

LoEG vol. 2 is currently out, though not as a TPB. The League vs. the Martians! (I originally typed "Marians", which would be amusing. "Take that, Father Wojtyla! Your theological notions shall never triumph in Britannia!")

And finally, if you're reading the TPBs rather than the individual issues, you're missing Alan Moore's prose work. Vol. 1 had a hysterical letters column and a "Quartermain Meets the Hideous Lovecraftian Beast" story; vol. 2 has Moore disgorging the entire product of three centuries of Western pulp fiction as a series of travelogues featuring individual members of the League.

Posted by: Steve on April 11, 2003 10:02 AM