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Good Read Column for February 1, 1999

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Penned by Mr. Alan Moore
With Delineations by
Mr. Kevin O'Neill
six-issue miniseries, 32 pages
America's Best Comics, $2.95

3 smileys(of a possible five)


With several hundred postings to rac.misc about this comic in just the first few days since it came out, it seemed the obvious choice for this week's column.

First off, yes, it is a good read. Yes, I do recommend it.

Is it on a par with From Hell or A Small Killing? Don't be silly. It's not even on a par with Watchmen or Miracleman. Closer in spirit to 1963, but somewhat less silly.

Of course, I could be wrong. It is possible that Moore has a much more serious design in mind than is apparent from this first issue. The text story seems to deliberately invite comparison to Watchmen, which is brave. But the ads - most of which seem to be actual newspaper and magazine advertisements of the time period, are more like the "We're looking for people who like to draw" and similar ads in the 1963 comics, although the latter were parodies of the originals rather than reprints.

This comic is, as I say, a bit more serious than 1963, but partaking of the same spirit. Both works are concerned with two things. One of them is simply to have fun. The other is paying homage to some classic adventure characters from the past, characters whose exploits were exhibited in a form or literature that the defenders of "high art" or "seriousness" would disdain. In the case of 1963 it was, of course, those early 60s Marvel comics that exploded onto the scene and changed all the rules seemingly overnight. In this case, it's late Victorian pulp literature, the forerunners of today's mystery, science fiction, horror and fantasy novels.

Alan Quartermain, for instance, was the star of H. Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines" and a dozen other adventure stories that thrilled boys and young men in much the same way that comics thrilled a later generation. When we meet Quartermain here, he's in an opium den, drugged senseless and past caring about himself or the world or anything else. The woman who has traveled all the way from England to find him tries in vain to rouse him, calling on his patriotism, on the man he once was, but that man seems all but dead.

"Is there nothing left of what you were?" she asks. In response, he merely closes his eyes.

But when a pair of brutish Egyptian thugs attack the lady and try to rape her, something inside Quartermain does stir, and, weak as he is, he comes to her assistance.

The lady's name is Wilhelmina Murray. She took her maiden name after she and her husband were divorced. That and Campion's (I'll get to him in a moment) comments about her being "ravished by a foreigner" made it obvious to me that she is Mina Harker from Dracula. Apparently, a lot of rac.* folks didn't recognize her, and were put out that Moore didn't spell out who she was, as he did with Alan Quartermain and Captain Nemo (of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Mysterious Island"). I'm not sure what the reason is, but Moore seems to be deliberately coy about this without making a secret of it. He has said quite plainly in several interviews that she is Mina Harker. He has also said at least once that as of #3 she "has not been referred to as anything but Wilhelmina Murray."

Wilhelmina wears a scarf around her throat - to hide the marks of The Count's fangs? Her hand reflexively touches this scarf and/or her throat when Captain Nemo questions her qualifications for her line of work.

What is her line of work? Well, apparently, she's part of a "menagerie" put together by Campion Bond, or perhaps his employer, "M," for mysterious purposes that involve protecting England.

"M," as in the James Bond books, is apparently the head of the British secret service. Wilhelmina expresses the opinion - couched as certain knowledge ("you know as well as I do") that "M" is actually Mycroft Holmes. Bond neither confirms nor denies her suspicions, and tells her it's none of her business who "M" is. We do know from Dr. Watson that Holmes brother did occasional work for the Foreign Office, so it's not out of the realm of possibility.

Since "Campion Bond" seems to be the only character without a prior literary pedigree, a couple of folks on rac.misc have suggested that he is, in fact, Mycroft Holmes. After all, he is supposed to be a recluse and therefore nobody would know what he looks like - and besides, like his brother he is a master of disguise.

That is possible. However, according to the research of William S. Baring-Gould and the Baker Street Irregulars, published in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock was born in 1854. Since Mycroft was seven years older, that would make him 51 in 1898. Campion Bond seems a much younger man, no more than 35, perhaps even under 30 (at least as he is drawn by Kevin O'Neill.

On the other hand, in an interview with Steve Johnson, Moore made some gaffes that would put making Mycroft younger to shame.

"It's 1898. Sherlock Holmes is dead at the moment," Moore said. "Because this is two years after he apparently died at Reichenbach Falls. He hasn't reappeared yet." In fact, "The Final Problem" was published in December 1893 - a full five years before 1898. Moreover, most scholars place its events two years before, in 1891. Why? Because Watson says Holmes was gone three years in "The Adventure of the Empty House," the story where he makes his reappearance. That story was published in 1903, but its first line begins "It was the spring of the year 1894 . . . " In other words, Holmes was gone three years and had been back for four in 1898. But Moore says we're going to see another character - a "Sherlock Holmes wannabe," in Moore's words - living at Holmes' digs on Baker Street. All because he mistakenly thinks Holmes was still missing then.

Another Moore error: "1897, Dracula lands in Whitby." Dracula was published in 1897. The last page of the book has a final note from Jonathan Harker "Seven years ago we all went through the flames . . . " The Annotated Dracula dates the events of the book to 1887, but in any case the final note means that it cannot have occured any later than 1890.

So it's entirely possible that this young dandy could be Alan Moore's idea of Mycroft Holmes. I sure hope not.

Of course, Moore could just say that these aren't mistakes, but instances of how his alternate universe differs from ours. It's obvious that there's more than a little "steampunk" sensibility here, from the opening scene at the site of the English end of a bridge under construction meant to span the English Channel to the strange version of 1898 Paris with huge skyscrapers and dozens of blimps (or dirigibles - I can never keep them straight; Moore seems to have a thing for lighter-than-air transport, by the way, as those who've read Watchmen will recall).

So Moore has skewed technological progress quite a bit forward. This actually makes sense. If Captain Nemo is a real person, then presumably the other works of Jules Verne are also true. Since Verne never projected his stories into the far future as modern science fiction writers do, for his works to be true in the 19th Century, technology would have to be more advanced than it actually was.

Besides, steampunk is "hot" right now.

I can't help but express some disappointment here. Moore did not do the preparation and research that I would have expected for such a project (the obvious error about Sherlock Holmes being the most egregious). I expect more from Moore, and not just in the research. The entire project is sort of "Moore light," reminiscent of Supreme or, again, 1963 rather than V for Vendetta or Big Numbers.

I'm also a bit put off by the art by Kevin O'Neill. He's obviously both talented and skillful, but stylistically he's all over the map, which I don't think is really called for here. There are occasional projects where different styles for different scenes make perfect sense, but I have no idea why the opening between Campion Bond and Wilhelmina Murray is done in a style reminiscent of Marc Hempel's work on the Sandman arc, "The Kindly Ones," with its almost abstract expressionist depiction of forms and faces, then it's followed by a second scene in the opium den which is rendered much more realistically, although it's difficult to see because of the darkened and muted color tones (which are perfect for the scene). From there, we go from highly stylized, simplified, cartoony faces to perfectly rendered detailed drawings of other faces almost from panel to panel for no apparent reason. I found it quite distracting.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that the art is beautiful to look at, whichever style is used. And the comic is well-scripted and quite enjoyable. If it weren't for the high expectations Moore had created for himself, I would no doubt be delighted with this comic. And I am, sort of. But there's a sense that he's not giving it his all.

But hey, 70% of Moore can out-write all but a handful of people in the field giving it their all any day of the week. So I can't recommend it as highly as I'd like, but I did enjoy it and you probably will, too.

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